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Understanding Life Expectancy

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Updated May 30, 2014

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What is Life Expectancy?:

Life expectancy is the average life span for an individual. Life expectancy figures are collected by national health systems and by projecting current mortality statistics. Life expectancy is generally given for a person born this year. For example, according to the CDC, anyone born in 2006 could expect to live about 77.5 years. But this is tricky, because life expectancy changes based on age and gender.

Life Expectancy at Birth:

The life expectancies that you usually read about are life expectancies at birth. The current U.S. life expectancy is 77.5 years. This number takes the current rates of mortality at each age and figures out where the average is. Deaths at young ages impact life expectancy averages much more than older deaths. If a person dies at 18, that is 59.5 years lost. A person dying at age 70 only loses 7.5 years. Young deaths impact life expectancy at birth statistics. If you can reduce your risk to some of the most common causes of death of young people, such as car accidents, you can significantly beat this number.

Life Expectancy at 65:

As people age, their life expectancy actually increases. Each year you live means that you have survived all sorts of potential causes of death. If you were born in 1942, your life expectancy at birth was about 68 years. But the good news is that you didn't die of infectious diseases when young, car accidents, or anything else. The average 65-year-old today can expect to live another 18.4 years. So your life expectancy now is not the same as it was at your birth. It is 5.9 years longer than the current life expectancy figure (which is for people born in 2006) or 83.4 years.

Life Expectancy at 75:

The news just keeps getting better -- if you make it to 75 your life expectancy increases to 86.8. You gain another 3.4 years. That means the average 75-year-old will live 9.3 years longer than the average child born in 2006. Sound like funny math? It's not, it is one of those weird things that statistics does. So don't be discouraged when you outlive the current average life expectancy at birth. Only the oldest person in the world can outlive his or her own life expectancy. For the rest of us, there is always someone older.

Gender Differences:

Men tend to die younger, bringing down the averages. The average 65-year-old woman today can expect to live another 19.8 years or a total of 84.8 years. If she makes it to 75, she can expect an additional 12.6 years or a total of 87.6 years. Men don't do quite as well, but the difference shrinks as they age. A 75-year-old man can expect, on average, another 10.5 years or 85.5 years total. Remember, these are averages -- you can beat them by eating right, staying active, staying involved and exercising your brain.

"Cohort" Effect:

Here are a few more numbers that are interesting and show the changes in life expectancy over time:

  • In 1950 the life expectancy:
    • at birth was: 68.2
    • for 65 year olds: 78.9
    • for 75 year olds: no data available
  • In 1980 the life expectancy:
    • at birth was: 73.7
    • for 65 year olds: 81.4
    • for 75 year olds: 85.4
  • In 2003 the life expectancy:
    • at birth was: 77.5
    • for 65 year olds: 83.4
    • for 75 year olds: 86.8

Source: CDC -- Health, United States, 2006

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