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The Depressing Trendlines That Are Driving America's Decline in Life Expectancy

The United States may be the world’s only true “superpower,” but when it comes to average life expectancy, we might as well be a third-world banana republic. Despite our enormous wealth relative to the rest of the world, the U.S., with an average life expectancy of just under 80 years old, ranks just 42nd in the world, behind such world powers as Monaco (89.5 years), Luxembourg (82.3 years), Liechtenstein (81.9 years), Norway (81.8 years), and the Cayman Islands (81.2 years). If Republican health care proponents get their way and succeed in repealing the Affordable Health Care Act, there is little doubt America will slide even further down the list.

Recently, Netquote, an online insurance broker, compiled data from the Health Inequality Project, the World Bank and the Kaiser Family Foundation, focusing on information based on age, gender, race, income, and residence, to paint a surprising picture of life expectancy in the United States.

1. Men vs. women

It is no surprise that on average, worldwide, women outlast men, a fact that seems to be attributable to evolution, and more specifically, testosterone. The U.S. is no outlier: Women live longer here. What is interesting, in looking at the study data is that where we live seems to be a factor in how long we live. The largest gap in life expectancy occurs in the South, specifically Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Arkansas, where there is a 6% difference between the life expectancies of men and women. Conversely, some of the more rugged states fare better. Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and South Dakota have the smallest gap, under 4%. Overall, northerners live longer than southerners.

2. Race and ethnicity

White privilege holds true to some degree when comparing the life expectancies of Caucasians vs. African Americans, 79 years old against 75 years old. Although their life expectancy has improved in the past several years, African Americans continue to suffer higher rates of cancer and heart disease, which along with economic disadvantage, contributes to the disparity. Wedged between these groups are Native Americans, with a life expectancy of 77 years. However, Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans, who live to 87 years old and 83 years old respectively, leave whites in the life expectancy dust.

When broken down by residency, some intriguing facts emerge. The life expectancy for African Americans is longer in northern states. Minnesota leads the way at just under 80 years, followed by Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington State, and New York. Lagging at the bottom are Washington D.C., Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, where expectancies are around 72 years. Washington, D.C. is by far the best place to live for Caucasians, at 84.3 years, with Mississippi the worst at just over 76 years. For Asian Americans, New Jersey is the longest-lived state at just over 89 years, and Alabama the worst at just over 85 years. Hispanic Americans live longest in Virginia, at 88.3 years, and the shortest in Texas, at just under 81 years.

3. Economic status

No surprise here: making more money tends to equate to a longer life. Those in the top income brackets tend to live as many as 12 years longer than those at the lowest income brackets (87 years to 75 years). In fact, those at the bottom average a lifespan no better than countries like Pakistan or Sudan. It is likely that access to decent health care (which repealing Obamacare would no doubt adversely affect) is a major factor in the life expectancy achieved. Other contributing factors favoring the well-to-do include better and healthier food options, more exercise opportunities, less stress, and less likelihood of smoking and drinking excessively.

See the complete study

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