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National income’s connection to life expectancy

Tracking countries with high, middle, and low income

There is a strong positive correlation between life expectancy and national income: That is, higher (lower) life expectancy for a country’s population is associated with higher (lower) GDP for that country. The FRED graph above provides the supporting evidence.

The red, green, and purple lines plot life expectancy at birth for high-, middle-, and low-income countries, respectively, since 1960. We can see the relationship between life expectancy and national income through (1) the comparison of income groups at any point in time and (2) the time trend of each individual income group.

In any given year, life expectancy is always highest for high-income countries and lowest for low-income countries. Over time, the group average for life expectancy increases for all three income levels and their national incomes also rise.

This graph also shows that the life expectancy gap between high- and low-income countries narrows over time:

  • In 1960, the average life expectancy for high-income countries was 68.5 years, while the average for low-income countries was 39.3 years, a gap of 29.2 years.
  • In 2018, this gap shrank to 16.9 years, with an average life expectancy of 80.7 for high-income countries and 63.8 for low-income countries.

This global increase of life expectancy over the past 60 years, especially for low-income countries, has been a significant achievement in human history. However, there’s a bit of country-specific variation, even within the high-income group. The U.S. is good example.

The blue line shows life expectancy for the U.S., which is always included in the high-income group over the sample period. U.S. life expectancy was slightly higher than that of high-income countries overall in the 1960s, was about even with them in the 1970s and 80s, and started to lag behind in the 1990s and even declined in recent years. The 2018 data show that life expectancy in the U.S. is 2 years lower than the average for all high-income countries. In short, U.S. life expectancy has increased, though its rate of increase for the past half century is lower than life expectancy for other high-income countries.

How this graph was created: Search for and select one of the “life expectancy and income” series for income groups (high, middle, low), then use the “Edit Graph” panel’s “Add Line” feature to search for the rest, plus the life expectancy total for the U.S.

Suggested by YiLi Chien.


New reflections for the new year

Some good news and some bad news about U.S. life expectancy

For many of us, it’s almost impossible to avoid at least some self-evaluation during the holidays, as we transition from one calendar year to the next. So here’s some input and, perhaps, something new to think about at the start of the year.

Let’s look at the good news first: Over the past 50 years, life expectancy in the U.S. has increased significantly, by almost 9 years, from 69.8 in 1960 to 78.8 in 2015. (The measures here are based on “life expectancy at birth,” which is the average number of years a newborn infant would live if prevailing patterns of mortality at birth were to stay the same throughout his or her life.) The graph shows that this improvement for the U.S. (thick black line) has been relatively steady over the years. To be sure, adding 9 years to a life is a big deal. A longer lifespan allows us to enjoy more years of retirement and interact with family (including children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren) but it’s also associated with better overall health over the lifetime.

But the graph also shows two patterns that also deserve reflection. First, the gains in life expectancy have been slowing down since the early 1980s, most notably in the past five years. Second, the U.S. was right in the middle of the pack in 1960 but is now lagging far behind all other developed countries. Indeed, in 1960, the U.S. was below the U.K. and Canada, essentially on par with France and Germany, but significantly above Japan and Italy. Fast forward to 2015 and you can see the U.S. is below all these countries by a significant margin: The Japanese and Italians are expected to outlive Americans by an average of five years, and the French are expected to outlive Americans by four years.

This comparison is among developed countries with comparable economic and geographic conditions (all are developed and all are in the Northern Hemisphere), but all these countries also have a presence in the genetic makeup of the U.S. population. So, what are the culprits that have caused the U.S. to lag behind? Food? Stress? Lack of exercise? Ingesting toxins and other risky behavior? Even if we knew the precise reasons, why would conditions be so different today?

How this graph was created: Search for “Life-Expectancy” and “United States.” From the Edit Graph” menu, select “Add Line” to add each of the other six countries, each time simply typing “Life-Expectancy” and the country name. Finally, to highlight the U.S. series, choose “Format” and select 5 for the width of the line and black for its color.

Suggested by Alexander Monge-Naranjo.


New life (expectancy data) in FRED

FRED recently added World Development Indicators data on life expectancy at birth, which are from the World Bank. The graph above includes some of the available data. The green line shows that life expectancy has been steadily increasing in the world, but that the experience varies across countries. Consider the three large countries shown in the graph: the U.S., China, and Russia. Life expectancy in the U.S. has also been steadily increasing, but not that fast, likely because it was already high to begin with. China had a big surge in the 1960s. The Russian experience has definitely been rocky, with several decreases at several points.

How this graph was created: Search for “life expectancy,” choose the countries you’re interested in, and add them to the graph. There are several pages of listings, so you may need to add some from the graph page itself.

Suggested by Christian Zimmermann.


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