Article Text

Improving life expectancy: how many years behind has the USA fallen? A cross-national comparison among high-income countries from 1958 to 2007
  1. Stéphane Verguet,
  2. Dean T Jamison
  1. Department of Global Health, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Stéphane Verguet; verguet{at}


Objective Many studies have documented higher mortality levels in the USA compared to other high-income nations. We add to this discussion by quantifying how many years behind comparison countries the USA has fallen and by identifying when US mortality rates began to diverge.

Design We use full life tables, for men and women, for 17 high-income countries including the USA. We extract the life expectancy at birth and compute the mortality rates for each 5-year age group from birth up to age 80. Using the metric of how many ‘years behind’ a country has fallen, we compare US mortality levels with those in other high-income countries (‘comparators’).

Results We report life expectancy for 17 high-income countries, for the period 1958–2007. Up to the late 1970s, US men and especially women closely tracked comparators in life expectancy. In the late 1970s in the USA, most strikingly women began to diverge from comparators so that the US female life expectancy in 2007 corresponded to that of the comparators’ average 10 years earlier. Mortality rates also began to diverge from the late 1970s, and the largest mortality gap was in the 15–49 age group, for both men and women, where the USA had fallen about 40 years behind the comparators by 2007.

Conclusions Some causes proposed for the relatively high US mortality today—racial differences, lack of universal health insurance, US exceptionalism—changed little while the mortality gap emerged and grew. This suggests that explanations for the growing gap lie elsewhere. Quantification of how many years behind the USA has fallen can help provide clues about where to look for potential causes and remedies.

  • Public Health

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non commercial and is otherwise in compliance with the license. See: and

Statistics from

Supplementary materials

  • Supplementary Data

    This web only file has been produced by the BMJ Publishing Group from an electronic file supplied by the author(s) and has not been edited for content.

    Files in this Data Supplement:

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.