Widening rural-urban disparities in life expectancy, U.S., 1969-2009

Am J Prev Med. 2014 Feb;46(2):e19-29. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2013.10.017.


Background: There is limited research on rural-urban disparities in U.S. life expectancy.

Purpose: This study examined trends in rural-urban disparities in life expectancy at birth in the U.S. between 1969 and 2009.

Methods: The 1969-2009 U.S. county-level mortality data linked to a rural-urban continuum measure were analyzed. Life expectancies were calculated by age, gender, and race for 3-year time periods between 1969 and 2004 and for 2005-2009 using standard life-table methodology. Differences in life expectancy were decomposed by age and cause of death.

Results: Life expectancy was inversely related to levels of rurality. In 2005-2009, those in large metropolitan areas had a life expectancy of 79.1 years, compared with 76.9 years in small urban towns and 76.7 years in rural areas. When stratified by gender, race, and income, life expectancy ranged from 67.7 years among poor black men in nonmetropolitan areas to 89.6 among poor Asian/Pacific Islander women in metropolitan areas. Rural-urban disparities widened over time. In 1969-1971, life expectancy was 0.4 years longer in metropolitan than in nonmetropolitan areas (70.9 vs 70.5 years). By 2005-2009, the life expectancy difference had increased to 2.0 years (78.8 vs 76.8 years). The rural poor and rural blacks currently experience survival probabilities that urban rich and urban whites enjoyed 4 decades earlier. Causes of death contributing most to the increasing rural-urban disparity and lower life expectancy in rural areas include heart disease, unintentional injuries, COPD, lung cancer, stroke, suicide, and diabetes.

Conclusions: Between 1969 and 2009, residents in metropolitan areas experienced larger gains in life expectancy than those in nonmetropolitan areas, contributing to the widening gap.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Life Expectancy / trends*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Rural Population / statistics & numerical data
  • Rural Population / trends
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Urban Population / statistics & numerical data
  • Urban Population / trends
  • Young Adult