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1900-2000: Changes In Life Expectancy In The United States

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There is an immense amount of data at our fingertips to shed light on people’s life expectancy and the underlying positive and negative causes throughout time. What does that data tell us about the life expectancy of adults in the U.S., both from a century ago and today? In this article, we explore impacts on life expectancy, innovations, and improvements. We’ll also cover how to create a life plan to match your life expectancy.

Life Expectancy

Year White men Black men
At birth At Age 65 At Age 75 At Birth At Age 65 At Age 75
1900 46.6 32.5
1910 48.6 33.8
1920 54.4 45.5
1930 59.7 47.3
1940 62.1 51.5
1950 66.5 12.8 59.1 12.9
1960 67.4 12.9 61.1 12.7
1970 68.0 13.1 60.0 12.5
1980 70.7 14.2 8.8 63.8 13.0 8.3
1990 72.7 15.2 9.4 64.5 13.2 8.6
2000 74.7 16.1 9.8 68.2 14.1 9.0
Year White women Black women
At birth At Age 65 At Age 75 At birth At Age 65 At Age 75
1900 48.7 33.5
1910 52.0 37.5
1920 55.6 45.2
1930 63.5 49.2
1940 66.6 54.9
1950 72.2 15.1 62.9 14.9
1960 74.1 15.9 66.3 15.1
1970 75.6 17.1 68.3 15.7
1980 78.1 18.4 11.5 72.5 16.8 10.7
1990 79.4 19.1 12.0 73.6 17.2 11.2
2000 79.9 19.1 11.9 75.1 17.5 11.3

Data sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Life Expectancy at Birth, age 65, and age 75, by sex, race, and Hispanic origin 1900-2018. U.S. Census Bureau: Current Population Special Studies Report: 65+ in the United States 2010. National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 49, No. 12. Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2000. U.S. Census Bureau: Statistical Abstract of the United States 1950-2001. CDC Age-adjusted Death Rates and Life Expectancy at Birth: 1900-1940.

Understanding Life Expectancy Data

Life expectancy data tells us the average number of years of life a person who has attained a given age can expect to live. Life tables can also be used to compare how life expectancy has improved (or declined) over time.1

The above table shows the changes in life expectancy in the United States from 1900 to 2000 based on gender and race. The data is also broken down by birth, age 65, and age 75. For example, if you were a 65-year-old white male in 1950, you would be expected to live another 12.8 years.

As life expectancy data from the early 20th century was not as comprehensive as it is today, we have included a dash for any data that was not accessible. In addition to an overall lack of comprehensive data prior to the 1950s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that data was not available consistently for the Black population due to changes in categories of race used in publications.2

The 100-Year Difference

The increase in life expectancy for men and women over 100 years is striking. In the table below, we break down the life expectancy increase in years and percentage.

Life expectancy at birth White men Black men White women Black women
1900 46.6 32.5 48.7 33.5
2000 74.7 68.2 79.9 75.1
Life expectancy years increase from 1900 to 2000 28.1 35.7 31.2 41.6
Life expectancy percentage increase from 1900 to 2000 60.3 percent 109.84 percent 64.07 percent 124.18 percent

Inside Tip: The history of senior living and our long-term care system is quite complex. Head over to our comprehensive senior living history guide to examine the events and decisions that changed the way we have provided (and paid for) the care of older adults over the years.

Impacts to Life Expectancy

Impacts to Life Expectancy

Many factors impact an individual’s life expectancy, such as war, disease, genetics, diet, lifestyle, gender, and health. Additional factors like crime, environmental toxins, the availability of safe and affordable housing, and income status also impact people’s ability to live long, healthy lives.3 As we explore this data, consider what factors impact your own life expectancy. The encouraging news is that life expectancy is expanding and people are living longer than they once did. Let’s take a closer look at the progress over the last century.

Healthy Lifestyle Factors: According to the American Heart Association, Americans can increase life expectancy at age 50 by 14 years for women and 12.2 years for men by adopting five lifestyle habits: getting regular physical activity, not smoking, adopting a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy BMI, and consuming alcohol in moderation.4

Men and Life Expectancy: 1900-2000

In 1900, the life expectancy for white men was 46.6 years. A Black man’s life expectancy was considerably less at 32.5 years. Fast-forward to the year 2000 and the statistics are far more positive. A white man’s life expectancy in the year 2000 was 74.7, and a Black man’s was 68.2.

However, premature death was a major factor in the late 1920s and throughout the 1930s. The Great Depression wreaked havoc on all genders and races from 1929 through 1939. Sadly, suicide mortality peaked with unemployment in the most recessionary years: 1921, 1932, and 1938.5 During World War II, about 12 percent of the total U.S. population was part of the armed forces, according to Census Bureau and Department of Defense data. The data also reports that the U.S. would experience over 400,000 military personnel deaths.6

1950s Medical Innovations: The jump in life expectancy in 1950 was due in part to advancements in medicine, such as the development of the external pacemaker in 1952 and the first successful open-heart surgery in 1953.

Despite the harsh challenges of the Great Depression and World War II, life expectancy in the 1930s rose for both white and Black men. It was expected that white males would live until the age of 59.7. The life expectancy for Black males was 47.3.

Women and Life Expectancy: 1900-2000

In 1900, the life expectancy for white women was 48.7 years. A Black woman’s life expectancy was a mere 33.5 years. Again, the 2000 statistics are far more positive. A white woman’s life expectancy in the year 2000 was 79.9, and a Black woman’s was 75.1.

Did You Know: Between 1900 and 1929, increased life expectancy revealed the urgent need for long-term care solutions. Prior to the Great Depression, only six states and territories had old-age assistance programs.

Life expectancy for women has increased dramatically since the 1900s, thanks in part to healthier mothers and babies. At the beginning of the 20th century, for every 1,000 live births, six to nine women in the United States died of pregnancy-related complications, and approximately 100 infants died before their first birthday.7 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Achievements in Public Health 1900-1999 report, maternal mortality rates were highest in this century from 1900 to 1930. Poor obstetric education and delivery practices were mainly responsible for the high numbers of maternal deaths, most of which were preventable.

Understanding Increases in Life Expectancy

Increases in Life Expectancy

The data shows us that as technology improves, and advancements in medicine and medical procedures improve, the life expectancy of both men and women expands.

Expansion of Resources

As resources (and access to them) increase, older adults can take advantage of medical equipment and smart devices to aid in their well-being. These are some key resources:

Senior Care Improvements

The quality of senior care directly affects an individual’s quality of life. A 1955 study by the Council of State Governments reported that the majority of nursing homes were functioning with low standards of service and relatively untrained personnel.8 Improvements of and expansion of care include:

1920s Medical Breakthroughs: Several major medical breakthroughs occurred in the ’20s, and all helped to improve life expectancy. Penicillin was discovered, insulin was first used to treat diabetes, and vaccines were created for diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and tetanus.9

5 Leading Causes of Death From 1900 to 2000

The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reports the five major causes of death in the United States during 1900, 1950, and 2000.10 As you’ll see in the chart below, mortality causes and critical public health concerns evolve over the century.

1900 Influenza and pneumonia Tuberculosis Diarrhea, enteritis, and ulcerative colitis Heart disease Stroke
1950 Heart disease Cancer Vascular lesions Accidents Certain diseases of infancy
2000 Heart disease Cancer Stroke Chronic respiratory disease Accidents

Stroke and Life Expectancy: Someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds. Black Americans are at twice the risk for stroke compared to white Americans, and they have the highest rate of death due to stroke.11

Creating a Life Plan to Match Life Expectancy

Creating a life plan to match life expectancy

People born today will have a longer life expectancy than that of their parents, and that trend could further increase as time passes. It is quite possible that as Americans, we could top the century mark for life expectancy for all men, women, and every heritage that calls the U.S. home.

That means we must look to the future to make sure we have the resources in place to meet our needs as we age. As you create your personalized life plan, consider the following factors and how they will affect the later years of your life:

Senior Statistics: The number of Americans age 100 or older keeps growing! According to a report from the CDC, there were 50,281 centenarians in 2000. In 2014, there were 72,197 Americans age 100 or older.12

Written By

Maureen Stanley

Writer & Editor

Maureen joined SeniorLiving.org with more than 10 years of experience writing in health, lifestyle, and nutrition for premium brands like General Mills, Westinghouse, and Bristol Myers Squibb. Her passion for empowering older adults is evident in coverage of topics like retirement, health… Learn More About Maureen Stanley

Citations
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). National Vital Statistics System.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Mortality Trends in the United States, 1900–2018.

  3. American Communities Project. (2019). The Income Gap’s Impact on Life Expectancy.

  4. Stanford Center on Longevity. (2021). Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the US Population.

  5. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. (2009). Life and death during the Great Depression.

  6. PBS News Hour. (2019). How many Americans have died in U.S. wars?.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (1999). Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report: Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies.

  8. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2021). Appendix A: History of Federal Nursing Home Regulation.

  9. National Center for Biotechnology Information. (2015). History of Medicine Timeline.

  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Mortality Trends in the United States, 1900–2018.

  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021). Stroke Facts.

  12. National Center for Health Statistics. (2016). Mortality Among Centenarians in the United States, 2000-2014.