Ben Hanowell writes:
In the middle of December 2016 there were a lot of headlines about the drop in US life expectancy from 2014 to 2015. Most of these articles painted a grim picture of US population health. Many reporters wrote about a “trend” of decreasing life expectancy in America.
The trouble is that the drop in US life expectancy last year was the smallest among six drops between 1960 and 2015. What’s more, life expectancy dropped in 2015 by only a little over a month. That’s half the size of the next smallest drop and two-thirds the size of the average among those six drops. Compare that to the standard deviation in year-over-year change in life expectancy, which is nearly three months. In terms of percent change, 2015 life expectancy dropped by 1.5%… but the standard deviation of year-over-year percent change in life expectancy is nearly 4%.
Most importantly, of course, life expectancy in the US has increased by about two months on average since 1960. [see above graph]
Hanowell has the full story at his blog:
The media is abuzz about a small drop in life expectancy in 2015. Yet despite sensationalist headlines, human lifespan has actually risen globally and nationally for decades if not centuries with no signs of a reversal. Alarmist news headlines follow noise rather than signal, causing us to lose sight of what’s really important: understanding how human lifespan has improved; how we can maintain that progress; how social institutions will cope with a rapidly aging population; and trends in vital statistics more fine-grained than overall life expectancy at birth.
Don’t believe the hype. Life expectancy isn’t plummeting.
Hanowell then goes through the steps:
What Is Life Expectancy?
Fact: Human Lifespan Has Risen Globally for Over 250 Years
Then he gets to the main point:
Fact: There’s No Evidence American Life Expectancy at Birth Is Falling
Okay. So the human lifespan has been increasing over the last few centuries in the U.S. and other nations. There still could have been a recent slowdown or reversal, right? Well, yes, but there’s virtually no evidence for it. The 2015 annual drop in lifespan is a mere 1.2 months of life. That’s 50% smaller than the average among six annual drops since 1960. Yet between 1960 and 2015, life expectancy in the U.S. increased by about two months per year on average. In 1960, newborns could expect to live just over 71 years. Now they can expect to live just under 79 years.
If words aren’t enough to convince you, here is an annotated picture of the numbers.
And then he gives the image that I’ve reproduced at the top of this post.
Let’s Stop Crying Wolf About Falling American Life Expectancy
Here are some examples of sensationalist, alarmist headlines about life expectancy:
U.S. life expectancy declines for first time in 20 years (BBC News)
Drugs blamed for fall in U.S. life expectancy (The Times)
Dying younger: U.S. life expectancy a ‘real problem’ (USA Today)
Heart disease, Alzheimer’s and accidents lead to drop in U.S. life expectancy (Newsweek)
We’ve already seen that American life expectancy is probably not a “real problem.” Quite the opposite. There may be an explanation for this short-term drop. Maybe The Times is right and it has something to do with the so-called “opioid epidemic.” Maybe Newsweek is right and we should chalk it up to heart disease and Alzheimer’s (although probably not). Maybe it’s something else entirely.
By sensationalizing short-term trends without the proper long-term context, we lose sight of the progress we’ve made. That leaves us less informed about how we’ve come so far in the first place, and where to go from here.
What We Should Be Talking About Instead of Falling Life Expectancy
(Because It Isn’t Falling)
Falling American lifespan isn’t a pressing problem. What should we focus on instead? Here are a couple of ideas:
Understand How We Came This Far and How to Keep Going . . .
Improve Health and Quality of Life at Advanced Ages Without Overwhelming Social Institutions . . .
Pay Greater Attention to Trends in Finer-Grained Vital Statistics Than Overall Life Expectancy . . .
Hanowell concludes his post as follows:
Recent headlines about a drop in expected American lifespan are misleading. Although life expectancy dropped by a small amount between 2014 and 2015, the long-term trend shows climbing lifespan. Instead of worrying about a problem for which there is no evidence, we should be focusing on meeting the challenges that come with longer human lifespans, and understanding why lifespan differs by demographic characteristics.
And then he has a question for me:
How can we encourage journalists and the prominent scientists they quote that you can still make a story about steadily increasing life expectancy despite occasional faltering, and it won’t hurt your chances of it “going viral” or getting research funding next year? Because to me, steadily increasing life expectancy is a more interesting story once you take into account how we got here, and what we’ll need to do to keep up with our own needs while taking care of the elderly.