Good News and Bad News about Life and Death Rates

By Steven Weisbart, Chief Economist, Insurance Information Institute

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) just released reports on mortality trends in the United States, and some of the news is good and some is bad. The bad news is what grabs the headlines (as the Wall Street Journal put it, “U.S. Life Expectancy Falls Further”). Some other media headlines focused on the rise of suicide as a cause of death (for example, USA Today: “Suicide rate up 33% in less than 20 years, yet funding lags behind other top killers”).

There is no denying it: these are not good developments. And these and other media note that the rate of death by suicide rose by 33.3 percent from 1999 through 2017. (Interestingly, the media generally doesn’t mention the fact that the rate of death by accident over that same period rose by 39.9 percent. Most of the accidental deaths are car-related.)

But there is good news in these reports. You just have to read them to find it. For example, life expectancy from age 65 (not from birth—the Wall Street Journal base) actually rose from 2016 to 2017. In 2017 it was 19.5 years, up 0.1 year from 2016. So on average, of a group of people who make it to age 65, half will live to 84.5 or longer (up from 84.4 or longer in 2016).

Also, in contrast to the increase in the rate of death by suicide, death by stroke was down by 39 percent from 1999 through 2017. Death from heart disease was down by 38.1 percent over that span; death by cancer dropped by 24.1 percent, and death by chronic respiratory disease dropped by 9.9 percent. Even death rates by suicide, which rose for most age groups, actually dropped for people age 75 and over (in 2017 vs. the rate in 1999).