Good News for the New Year: Americans Living Longer Than Ever

Americans' Life Expectancy Is Increasing

There's good news for the New Year.  Americans are living longer than at any time in history—76.9 years, on average.  This is testimony to both the vibrancy of nature and the ingenuity of man.

The combination of fewer infant deaths and the longevity of seniors has extended U.S. life expectancy to an impressive 79.5 years for women and 74.1 years for men, according to the latest research conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Centenarians, in fact, now rank among the fastest-growing age groups in the nation, with an estimated 75,000 among us having celebrated their 100th birthday.

Life expectancy in America circa 1900 was a mere 48 years (an improvement nonetheless over the typical 25-year lifespan in the Stone Age).  Compared to the gains in the past century, however, no period in history has experienced such a dramatic increase in life expectancy.

What sets the 20th century apart, of course, is the industrial and technological progress fueled by free minds and free markets.  As authors Stephen Moore and the late Julian Simon note in "It's Getting Better All the Time": "The unique American formula of individual liberty and free enterprise has cultivated risk taking, experimentation, innovation, and scientific exploration on a grand scale that has never occurred anywhere before." 

Superior pharmaceuticals and diagnostic tools are products largely borne of independent thought and the profit motive.  An array of powerful antibiotics and vaccines, for example, has subjugated the infectious diseases that once ranked as the leading causes of death.  Tuberculosis, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, and pneumonia claimed 797 lives out of every 100,000 in 1900.  Nowadays, such deaths number less than 40 per 100,000, and account for only 4.2 percent of all disability-adjusted life years lost.

Modern chemistry and mass production have likewise vastly improved living standards and prolonged lives (the hand wringing of environmental doomsayers notwithstanding).  Absent chlorination, insecticides, and refrigeration, for example, 25 percent of us likely would have died before our first birthdays and an equal number never would have been conceived, our existence denied by the premature death of mother or grandmother.

Today, age-adjusted death rates in the United States have reached a record low of 872.4 per 100,000 people. Infant mortality has dropped to the lowest level ever—6.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.

Cancer and heart disease, which together account for more than half of all deaths, also continue to decline, according to the NCHS report.  This most welcome trend wholly contradicts the popular notion of Americans as enveloped by clouds of toxic tailpipe emissions and poisoned by pesticide-soaked produce.  Air quality, in fact, has vastly improved, with carbon monoxide concentrations down a whopping 57 percent in the past two decades; with lead down 94 percent; sulfur dioxide 50 percent; and nitrogen dioxide 25 percent.  And with the aid of pesticides and a bit of genetic engineering, a diet rich in cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables has never been more abundant and affordable.

Our waterways are cleaner, too.  Along 98 percent of the Great Lakes shoreline, for example, water quality is rated "good" by state government for both swimming and drinking.  (The heavy metals said to contaminate some lakes' fish are largely remnants of a bygone era.)

Still, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) churns out regulations that only vaguely correspond to actual dangers.  The Harvard School of Public Health statistically determined that it takes something like $8 million to save one year of a "hypothetical life" through EPA regulations.  While human life carries no price tag, consider that medical care can accomplish the same feat with only $19,000. 

In fact, death from cardiovascular disease has fallen 50 percent on an age-adjusted basis since the 1950s.  Blood pressure drugs, surgery, and emergency treatment all have contributed to the decrease, but the most significant factor remains individual will power. Smoking cessation and other changes in personal behavior prolong life far more than a Federal Register brimming with public health regulations.

America cannot boast of the longest life expectancy worldwide.  Japan currently takes those honors, apparently a consequence of its genetic homogeneity and peculiar diet.  But no nation can equal the United States in the astonishing progress of the past century that has so enriched and prolonged so many lives.


(Diane Katz is director of science, environment, and technology policy with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.  Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliation are cited.)


There's good news for the New Year: Americans are living longer than at any time in history-76.9 years, on average. This is testimony to both the vibrancy of nature and the ingenuity of man-and the industrial and technological progress fueled by free minds and free markets.

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