US slips to 49th in life expectancy

By Sahil Kapur for

The United States currently ranks 49th in the world in overall life expectancy, according to a study published in the academic journal Health Affairs, slipping dramatically during the last decade.

“As of September 23, 2010, the United States ranked forty-ninth for both male and female life expectancy combined,” concludes the study, conducted by Columbia University health policy professors Peter A. Muennig and Sherry A. Glied, which will appear in the November edition of the influential peer-reviewed journal.

The noteworthy decline is highlighted by the fact that in 1999, the World Health Organization ranked the US as 24th in the world in the same category, life expectancy.

The report by Muenning and Glied found the prime culprit of the plunge to be America’s deteriorating health care system, marred by ever-rising costs and growing numbers of uninsured and under-insured individuals.

Noting that the United States spends over twice as much per capita on health care than other industrialized nations, it adds: “The observation that Americans are spending relatively more on health but living relatively shorter, less healthy lives has led some critics to allege that the US health care system is ‘uniquely inefficient.'”

The findings present a stark contrast to the claim – today an article of faith in the American conservative movement – that the United States has the best health care system in the world.

The United States, as is widely known, remains the only advanced democracy without a universal health care program. But sweeping reform legislation enacted by this March, while limited in its capacity for cost controls, offers a significant step towards universality – it is projected by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office to insure 94 percent of Americans in ten years, up from 83 percent today.

The authors of the report also posited that high rates of obesity, smoking, homicides and traffic fatalities may have contributed to the decline.

The study was flagged by a Daily Kos blogger and elevated by Glenn Greenwald of Salon. Apart from coverage in some blogs, medical journals, and an article by Reuters, it received scant attention in the mainstream US press.


  1. ILONA ANDERSON on October 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm

    We Americans on the receiving end of American healthcare know what it’s like to be sick in America. Even with great full health insurance coverage, the amount that insurers cover is basically fifty percent, after yearly deductibles and amounts insurers won’t cover. My breast cancer surgery cost $10,000 out of pocket, though I have full coverage. And my great insurance kicked me out of the hospital bleeding, because their standard procedure for a mastectomy is no more than 2 days’ stay. It did not matter that I did not have a “standard” mastectomy. When insurers tell patients, doctors and hospitals what kind of care should be provided, we are in deep trouble. It is not more insurance that we need, but universal quality healthcare where doctors and hospitals make the medical decisions. Europe and Asia are already enjoying their quality healthcare. When will America wake up?

  2. Ida Hellander on October 28, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    This study doesn’t show that the US is 49th in life expectancy, although it cites a CIA report and another study (from 2007) that apparently says that.

    Instead, this study shows that obesity, smoking, homicide, and traffic accidents are not the reason for higher US health care costs and declining 15-year survival rates relative to 12 other nations over the past 30 years.

    Although more Americans are obese, obesity is rising just as fast in other nations, and does not explain the difference, these authors from Columbia University find. Similarly, our terrible international performance cannot be explained by smoking (we smoke less, it turns out) homicides, or car wrecks.

    These authors dismiss the lack of insurance by 50 million Americans as a potential cause of excess mortality in the U.S. and instead lay the blame on our “fee-for-service” system. While that may indeed be part of the reason for rising costs, there’s a large body of research showing that lack of insurance is deadly. Indeed, it will lead to about 50,000 excess deaths this year alone.

    In sum, the great value in this study is that it lays to rest the charge that the US health crisis is due to obesity, smoking, homicides or traffic accidents. That’s useful info for health reform advocates – in addition to the finding from somewhere else that the US is now 49th in life expectancy!

  3. Chetdude on October 28, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    By pandering to the for-profit health insurance mafia and Big PhRMA, the new “health insurance and pharmaceutical corporation stimulus plan of 2010” will NOT be affordable in 10 years.

    “It’s the PROFIT, Stupid!” Those other nations that have universal care do NOT allow the 30% overhead that the for-profit health-industrial complex steals from us!

    THAT’S how they succeed…and by retaining the for-profit paradigm, we WILL fail!

  4. Titus North on November 1, 2010 at 10:42 am

    The PPACA health care reforms extend insurance to millions of people, but will reduce coverage as subsidies and incentives are all directed at high deductable insurance that many people will be unable to afford. The legislation does not even pretend to tackle costs, and instead simply mobilizes more economic resources (taxes, premiums, out-of-pocket) in order to support an unsustainable system for a few extra years. It will pit the middle class against the poor and when the whole thing collapses the “lesson” that will be shoved down our throats is that the “government take-over” failed. Single-payer, which is the only real solution, will be doomed.

  5. Dr Fuller on March 9, 2012 at 12:11 am

    Direction, not your intention, leads to your destination!

    I love this quote because it sums up the U.S. health care system. It has a wrong premise. If I broke my arm and it was sticking out I wouldn’t take pain pills my whole life to cover the symptom. If I did you would call me an idiot. So it is with people taking prescription medications without getting healthier. Improve your health and get off pills. Drugs and surgery side effects are the leading killers of people in the U.S. Stop trying to talk about a universal health care system with the same direction. You may have the right intentions, the doctors may have the right intentions, but the direction is failure. Look inside for the cause of sickness. Look for why your body isn’t healthy. Get to a chiropractor and get your health back. I did. I had incurable Chrone’s disease and I am cured. Now I help thousands. Common sense! Correct direction get healthy and things go away! Amazing!! Duh!

  6. jade on October 3, 2012 at 11:46 am

    link doctor and hospital pay fully to performance and kick out the insurance conmen middlemen.