Life Expectancy


by By Lisa Weiner / contributor

Posted on March 24, 2009 at 1:37 PM

Updated Thursday, Oct 22 at 4:28 PM

We never know how long we will be on this earth, and probably only a few of us want to "live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse," as the actor John Derek so famously said. But although life is a crap shoot, a little thing called life expectancy can reassure us, even just a tad, about how long we might be around.

In the US, the current life expectancy is at an all-time high of just over 78 years. White women have the highest life expectancy (81 years), then black women (77 years), white men (76 years), and black men (70 years).

In other good news, mortality has declined from the following leading causes of death:

  • Heart disease (down nearly 4 percent)
  • Cancer (down 2 percent)
  • Stroke (down nearly 5 percent)
  • Accidents/unintentional injuries (down nearly 2 percent)

But for the first time in almost a century, life expectancy is decreasing for a significant number of American women. A recent study published in , an open-access journal of the Public Library of Science, reveals a "reversal of fortune" for women in 1,000 of the U.S.'s 3,141 counties. In these counties, located in rural and low-income areas, women's life expectancy has decreased five years since 1983.

The downward trend results from smoking, obesity and high blood pressure, says one of the study's co-authors, Majid Ezzati of the Harvard Initiative for Global Health. The affected segment of the population lives in the Southeast, Appalachia, Texas, the southern Midwest, a small pocket of Maine and along the Mississippi River. In the West, it seems, we're living longer. But with obesity levels increasing all over the nation, how long will that last?

Obviously, it is important for public-health workers and policy makers to address the issues that were revealed in this study with education programs and improved healthcare coverage and access in the affected counties. For the rest of us, this study is an important reminder that increasing life expectancy is not guaranteed. Still, there are specific steps we can all take to improve our chances of living to a ripe old age.

Three lifestyle habits in particular greatly contribute to longevity:

  • Healthy diet: Eat a diet that is high in fresh fruits and vegetables and that is low in packaged and processed food and in trans-fats. Learn more about from the American Heart Association.
  • Exercise: Get at least 30 minutes of brisk walking most days of the week or a higher intensity exercise for at least 20 minutes three days a week in order to reap the most health benefits. Get the skinny on exercise .
  • Smoking cessation. Just don't smoke. Period. If you smoke, a can help you quit.

In addition to the three most important lifestyle habits, there are steps you can take to further increase your odds of hitting your life expectancy, and maybe even surpassing it to become a supercentenarian, someone who lives past the age of 110.

  • Make sure your blood pressure and cholesterol are at healthy levels. If they are not, consult with your health care provider about possible treatments.
  • Keep up to date with age-appropriate screening tests, such as mammograms and colonoscopies.
  • Take general safety precautions: wear a helmet while biking, wear seatbelts, have smoke detectors in the house, practice safe sex.

While there are no guarantees that practicing these habits will ensure that you live till the cows come home, they will certainly help put the odds in your favor. And if there's one arena where you want the best odds you can get, it's the arena of life expectancy. So, live slow, die old and leave that corpse to science.