White life expectancy drops for first time in a decade

Black and Hispanic life expectancy is up

Life expectancy for whites in the United States fell slightly in 2014, a rare reversal after a decade of lifespan increases, according to new CDC data.

Latest data

Based on an analysis of death certificates, CDC found that life expectancy at birth for white Americans in 2014 was 78.8 years—down from 78.9 years the year prior. The decline was primarily driven by a decrease in life expectancy among non-Hispanic white women from 81.2 years in 2013 to 81.1 years in 2014 .

Experts say the decline among whites may be a statistical blip. But even small declines, Betsy McKay writes for the Wall Street Journal, "are unusual for wealthy nations, where people tend to live longer with each successive generation."

According to the New York Times, the last decline in life expectancy for whites was in 2005. Before that, the last dip was in 1993, when life expectancy fell for Americans overall during the height of the AIDS epidemic.

However, CDC's latest findings are one of many recent data points that suggest whites are grappling with in an increase in mortality caused by opioid misuse and other substance-misuse and mental health issues. For instance, last year Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton documented a rising death rate among middle-aged whites, particularly those who lacked a college degree.

Elizabeth Arias, at statistician at the National Center for Health Statistics who analyzed the latest CDC data, echoes the Princeton research, saying the decline seems to be caused by an uptick in drug overdoses, liver disease, and suicides. Increases in mortality associated with those trends were severe enough to offset declines in mortality for ailments such as heart disease and cancer.

However, Arias cautions that more research is needed to understand the trend. 

Shocking finding: Death rate increasing for middle-aged white Americans

The Urban Institute's Laudy Aron worries the data could be a sign of things to come. "We continue to deviate from what these other high-income countries are doing, especially among women," she warns.

Overall life expectancy stagnates

Meanwhile, life expectancy in the United States overall has stagnated at 78.8 years since 2012, according to the latest CDC data. By contrast, U.S. life expectancy had grown steadily for decades, rising from 69.7 years in 1960 to 78.7 years in 2010.

The lack of change in life expectancy is a "wake-up call," says Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

Positive trends

Meanwhile, CDC found that life expectancy for Hispanics rose from 81.6 years in 2013 to 81.8 years in 2014, including an increase for Hispanic women from 83.8 years to 84 years.

Doctors' racial biases may harm black patients, study suggests

Black average life expectancy rose from 75.5 in 2013 to 75.6 years in 2014. Black men posted the largest increase of any demographic group, climbing from 71.8 in 2013 to 72.2 years in 2014. Arias says, "The gap between the white and black populations is quickly closing, and it's mainly because the black population is experiencing a great drop in mortality" (Achenbach, "To Your Health," Washington Post, 4/20; McKay, Wall Street Journal, 4/20; Tavernise, New York Times, 4/20).

Beyond fighting addiction: Reducing opioid prescriptions could cut millions in avoidable costs at your institution

Learn about our analysis of more than 400 organizations to investigate the impact of multi-modal pain regimens, and how your organization may be able to save over $1 million by reducing opioid use during surgery.

Watch the presentation


Next in the Daily Briefing

No hospital quality stars today: Why CMS just delayed the new ratings

Read now