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U.S. Death Gap Grows: Demographer

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Magali Barbieri, a demographer with the University of California-Berkeley, says the gap between the life expectancy of the U.S. residents in the top socioeconomic status category and U.S. residents in the lowest category grew sharply between 1999 and 2018.

In 1999, for example, a baby girl born into a family in the top 10% of the population in terms of socioeconomic status could expect to live to age 81.3 years, or 3.4 years longer than a baby girl born into the bottom decile.

In 2018, a baby girl born into the top decile could expect to live 5.9 years longer than a baby girl born in the bottom decile.

For boys, the life expectancy gap at birth increased from 5.5 years in 1999 to 7.3 years in 2018.

Barbieri found similar gap widening occurring for U.S. residents for other age groups. For annuity issuers, for example, one key age group is people turning 65. Some people retire at age 65 and then shift part or all of their retirement savings into annuities that offer lifetime income benefits.

For men, the life expectancy gap at age 65 increased to 3.1 years in 2018, from 1.8 years in 1999.

For women, the gap increased to 1.7 years, from 1.3 years.


Barbieri prepared the report for several subgroups at the Society of Actuaries (SOA), which posted the report and a collection of related resources, including a set of data graphing tools, on its website.

The SOA says in a disclaimer note that the views expressed in the report are those of the author, and that many factors go into overall mortality and mortality improvement trends.

The Methods

In the executive summary, Barbieri says that she created county-level socioeconomic status scores using data on factors such as education, occupation, employment, and housing price and quality from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, in addition to income. She then created socioeconomic category life expectancy figures by using the socioeconomic status scores and county population figures.

She broke the population down by socioeconomic status deciles, and also by socioeconomic status quintiles, or fifths.

More on this topic

She’s now working on extending the scope of her analysis back to 1982, and to look at mortality for people over the age of 85.

Data Details

“The ratio of the probabilities of dying in every decile to the U.S. average shows that disparities are largest for children and for adults between the ages of 40 and 60, with nearly mirror images for each sex,” Barbieri writes. “The excess (or deficit) declines to around 10% at ages 80 and above.”

Barbieri found stabilization in life expectancy at birth between 2010 and 2014, and a decline from 2014 through 2017.

She says life expectancy improvement was slower than the level of improvement in other wealthy countries even before 2010, and that the gap has widened since then.

Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world for women.

Compared to Japan, “even the U.S. population in the highest socioeconomic decile is lagging behind,” Barbieri writes.

In 2016, Barbieri writes, women in the top socioeconomic decile in the United States had an average life expectancy that was 3.4 years less than the life expectancy of the average woman in Japan.

Overall U.S. life expectancy fell from 2014 through 2017, Barbieri says.

“Though life expectancy increased for all groups between 2017 and 2018, the COVID-19 pandemic makes it likely that 2020 will, again, see an increase in mortality in at least some segments of the population, both from the virus itself and from its social and economic fallout,” Barbieri writes.

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