However, recent trends show that the rate of increase is
Or in the case of the most recent data, life expectancy is actu-
ally decreasing; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
reported at the end of last year that the average life expectancy
in the United States declined slightly from 78.9 years in 2014 to
78.8 in 2015.[ 7]
Furthermore, this comes after the rate was unchanged from
a life expectancy of 78.8 for both 2012 and 2013.[ 8]
A deeper look at the data shows a persistent flattening off of
life expectancy growth in recent years. For instance, the aver-
age U.S. life expectancy has increased about 13 months in the
last decade, from 77.7[ 9] years on average back in 2006. That’s
significantly less than the median increase of about 2 years and
2 months over each rolling 10-year period in the past century
of data—and even below the much more modest increase of 1
year and 6 months per decade in the most recent 50-year pe-
riod since 1966.
So yes, we are living longer than in decades past … but not
that much longer.
That’s not the narrative you’ll read these days about longevity, however.
For instance, the MacArthur Research Network on an Aging
Society released a report[ 10] a few years ago that warned “the U.S.
Social Security Administration and Census Bureau have misjudged the average American lifespan in 2050 by three to eight
years.” These scientists argued the typical American will live as
long as 90 years by 2050, an increase of 11. 2 years from current
estimates, and we had better start to prepare for that eventuality.
It’s worth noting, however, that the last 11. 2 years tacked on
to U.S. life expectancy rates took about 70 years to achieve—and
as stated above, that was before the rate of change began to plateau to a much lower current rate of growth.
This kind of overly optimistic view of longevity isn’t con-
tained to the United States, either. England’s National Health
Service predicted that by 2030 the life expectancy there would
be in the late 80s—something the Daily Mail[ 11] called “a life ex-
With headlines like that, you can understand why there is
such a movement to get out ahead of an aging society. And as
such, many actuaries are the ones doing the heavy lifting on
predicting health care costs, Social Security outlays, and other
But it’s perhaps worth questioning the underlying assumption that America will perpetually grow older and live longer.
Modern Medicine vs . Personal Choice
There is nothing inherently wrong with optimism about longevity. And in fairness, predictions are never intended to be
guarantees, and those making estimates on life expectancy
would likely be the first to admit there are many possible surprises that could affect their outlook.
But let’s get real for a moment, and admit how the narrative
about longer lifespans has been informed not by science but sci-
We cannot currently use 3-D printers to create organs for
transplant or genetically modify embryos to “edit out” hereditary diseases, but there is much expectation that we will soon
be able to do so. It’s the same technological optimism that surrounded flying cars and moon bases in the 1960s, and may prove
just as naïve.
There is also a basic assumption that as Americans get access
to better medicine and increased safety thanks to technology,
they will not only live longer lives but happier and healthier
ones. But a few recent statistics offer evidence to the contrary.
Consider 2016’s dramatic rise in traffic fatalities,[ 12] the biggest spike in 50 years and one driven by distracted drivers who
play with their smartphones during rush hour. The mobile age
has clearly ushered in a lot of benefits, but this is one very tangible example of the risks that come with new technologies thanks
to quirks of human behavior.
Outside of bad driving habits, bad eating habits continue to
kill Americans, too. In fact, two of the biggest reasons life expectancy rates recently declined was an uptick in both diabetes
deaths and deaths attributable to heart disease.
Perhaps the darkest data point showing the perils of personal choice is the dramatic rise in suicides, with the most recent
numbers showing Americans are taking their lives at the highest
rate in 30 years.[ 13] The rate has been rising at about 2 percentage
points a year since 2006, now claiming the lives of 13 people in
every 100,000—making it now the 10th leading cause of death
in the United States.
There has undoubtedly been scientific progress and medical
advances that allow for the possibility of living a much longer
life. However, a possibility is not a certainty.
What’s Really Behind Longevity Gains?
In the groundbreaking work Freakonomics,[ 14] economist Steven Levitt proposed that a precipitous drop in violent crime
across the 1990s was not because of more effective policing or
a better criminal justice system. Instead, he posited the controversial notion that ready access to abortion prevented the birth
of thousands of babies into poverty, unstable homes, and abusive
environments ready-made to raise a criminal.
Bad eating habits continue to kill
Americans, too. In fact, two of the
biggest reasons life expectancy rates
recently declined was an uptick in
both diabetes deaths and deaths
attributable to heart disease.