What Really Is My Life Expectancy?

by Carl Haub, senior demographer, PRB

As compelling a concept as it may be, life expectancy is an often-misunderstood demographic measure. Frequently, it is life expectancy at birth that receives the most attention, although we’re all aware we’re “living longer.”

Life expectancy results from life tables, sometimes referred to as actuarial tables. In a sense, a life table summarizes the mortality experience of a population in a given time period, often a year. Death rates are low for young people and naturally rise with age. But what matters is how much or how little these rates change and at what ages. As an example, consider life expectancy in the United States in 1940.

A male born in the United States in 1940 had, on average, a life expectancy of 61.6 years; a female’s life expectancy was 65.9 years. A little over half of male babies and two-thirds of females could “expect” to survive until age 65, rather a dismal prospect compared to today. Males who did survive to age 65 could expect to live about 12 more years, making it to age 77. But those expectations were based on 1940s death rates and quite a lot has happened health-wise since then. Those 65-year-old males could, in 2005, expect to live nearly another 17 years, to about age 82.

Life

Expectancy

at Birth

Chance of

Surviving

to Age 65

Life

Expectancy

at Age 65

1940 Males

61.6

56%

12.1

1940 Females

65.9

66%

13.6

2005 Males

74.9

79%

16.8

2005 Females

79.9

87%

19.5

Since 1940, the prevention and treatment of disease has, of course, advanced in leaps and bounds, along with lifestyle changes such as smoking cessation and improved diets. So how long can 1940s babies expect to live? In 2005, the answer was fairly clear, but things have improved even since then. Males ages 65 in 2011 could expect to live an additional 17.8 years, females, 20.4. In summary, the outlook for living longer keeps getting better, and although life tables can’t really predict how long a person lives, they can offer a pretty close answer!

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