Falling behind: life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context

Popul Health Metr. 2011 Jun 15;9(1):16. doi: 10.1186/1478-7954-9-16.


Background: The United States health care debate has focused on the nation's uniquely high rates of lack of insurance and poor health outcomes relative to other high-income countries. Large disparities in health outcomes are well-documented in the US, but the most recent assessment of county disparities in mortality is from 1999. It is critical to tracking progress of health reform legislation to have an up-to-date assessment of disparities in life expectancy across counties. US disparities can be seen more clearly in the context of how progress in each county compares to international trends.

Methods: We use newly released mortality data by age, sex, and county for the US from 2000 to 2007 to compute life tables separately for each sex, for all races combined, for whites, and for blacks. We propose, validate, and apply novel methods to estimate recent life tables for small areas to generate up-to-date estimates. Life expectancy rates and changes in life expectancy for counties are compared to the life expectancies across nations in 2000 and 2007. We calculate the number of calendar years behind each county is in 2000 and 2007 compared to an international life expectancy time series.

Results: Across US counties, life expectancy in 2007 ranged from 65.9 to 81.1 years for men and 73.5 to 86.0 years for women. When compared against a time series of life expectancy in the 10 nations with the lowest mortality, US counties range from being 15 calendar years ahead to over 50 calendar years behind for men and 16 calendar years ahead to over 50 calendar years behind for women. County life expectancy for black men ranges from 59.4 to 77.2 years, with counties ranging from seven to over 50 calendar years behind the international frontier; for black women, the range is 69.6 to 82.6 years, with counties ranging from eight to over 50 calendar years behind. Between 2000 and 2007, 80% (men) and 91% (women) of American counties fell in standing against this international life expectancy standard.

Conclusions: The US has extremely large geographic and racial disparities, with some communities having life expectancies already well behind those of the best-performing nations. At the same time, relative performance for most communities continues to drop. Efforts to address these issues will need to tackle the leading preventable causes of death.