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

Life Expectancy

Year White Men Black Men
At Birth At Age 65 At Age 85 At Birth At Age 65 At Age 85
Additional Years 28 4 2 35 5 2
Percentage Change 60% 33% 50% 106% 50% 50%
1900 47 12 4 33 10 4
1910 49 4 34 5
1920 54 4 46 5
1930 60 4 47 4
1940 62 4 52 5
1950 67 13 4 59 13 5
1960 67 13 4 61 13 5
1970 68 13 5 60 13 6
1980 71 14 5 64 13 6
1990 73 15 5 65 13 5
2000 75 16 6 68 15 6
Year White Women Black Women
At Birth At Age 65 At Age 85 At Birth At Age 65 At Age 85
Additional Years 31 7 3 41 7 2
Percentage Change 63% 58% 75% 121% 63% 40%
1900 49 12 4 34 11 5
1910 52 4 38 5
1920 66 4 45 5
1930 64 4 49 6
1940 67 4 55 6
1950 72 15 5 63 15 6
1960 74 16 5 66 15 5
1970 76 17 6 68 16 7
1980 78 18 6 73 17 7
1990 80 19 7 74 17 6
2000 80 19 7 75 18 7

Data Sources: National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 50, No.6. Life Expectancy at Birth, by Race and Sex, Selected Years 1929-98.; National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 49, No.12.Deaths, Preliminary Data for 2000.;U.S. Census Bureau. P23-190 Current Population Reports: Special Studies. 65+ in the United States.

There is a lot of data that tells us about the quality of life of people throughout time. From forensic records and bone samples of people who live two thousand years ago to the dental records and death records of people who died just yesterday. What does that data tell us about the life expectancy of Adults in the US both from a century ago and today? In this article,  we explore that data.

Impacts to Life Expectancy

There are many factors that impact the life expectancy of people and individuals. War, disease, genetics, diet, lifestyle, gender, and health are a few of those. As we explore this data, ask yourself about your own health, wellness, and how they impact your own life expectancy. The short story here is that life expectancy is expanding and people are living longer than they once did. Here is a closer look at that progress.

Men and Life Expectancy

In 1900, the expectation for white men was to live to age 47 and 12 percent of those born in 1900 would make it to age 65. In contrast, an African American man born in 1900 was only expected to live until the age of 33 and of those born in 1900, only 10 percent of them would live to reach age 65. For both white and African American men born in 1900, a mere four percent ( for each) would reach age 85.

By 1910 the life expectancy for white men grew by two years and those born in 1910 the expectancy was to live to 49 years of age. For African Americans, that decade saw only a single year improvement in life expectancy. Five percent of African American men born in 1910 would reach age 85, whereas, only four percent of white men born in that year would celebrate their 85th birthday.

In 1920, white men had an expectancy to live to age 54 and African Americans to age 46. In the 1920’s several medical breakthroughs occurred. We discovered things like vitamins, vaccines, and the introduction of new medications such as Sulfa – all helped to improve the life expectancy. [1]

At the end of the 1920’s (1929) the great depression started. It would last until 1939 when another incident – World War II – would begin. Both of those events caused premature death. Despite all this, life expectancy in the 1930’s rose for white men with an expectancy to live until the age of 60. For African American, the life expectancy for men was low – age 47. For African American men born in 1930, a decrease in the data appears – only four percent would reach the age of 85. A drop of one percent.

White men born in 1950 had a life expectancy of 67 – which today is the age of retirement. For African American men born in 1950, the life expectancy was 59 years of age – nearly a full decade earlier than that of white men. I fact, African American males have a life expectancy of age 68 only after the year 2000 and for white men, born in 2000, the life expectancy is age 75. A difference that parallels from 1950-2000.

In part, the jump in life expectancy in 1950 were improvements in medicine, such as the development of the external pacemaker in 1952 and the first successful open heart surgery in 1953. [2]

Read more about the advancements in medicine as a timeline.

Women and Life Expectancy

White women born in 1900 were expected to live until age 49 and of those women born in that decade, 12 percent would live to be age 65 and 4 percent to age 85. For African American women born in 1900, life was short. Their life expectancy was only 34 years and only 11 of those women would make it to age 65 and five percent would turn 85. For those women born in 1910, white women on average lived until age 52 and African American women to age 38. It would not be until the 1950’s that African American women would live to reach age 63. In 1950, white women had a life expectancy of 72. For those women born in 1950, 15 percent would reach age 65 and five percent of white women would make it to their 85th birthdays and six percent of African American women would reach age 85. Between 1900 and 1950 only 12 percent of white women would live to reach age 65 and 11 percent of African American women would live to age 65.

By the year 2000, White women had a life expectancy of 80 years and African American woman were expected to live to age 75.

What the data shows us that as technology improves and advancement in medicine and medical procedures improve, the life expectancy of men and women expand. Technological advancements, such as medical alert systems, have greatly contributed to increased life expectancy. Also, improved elder care found in nursing homes, convalescent homes, memory care facilities and assisted living facilities have all helped to improve the average life expectancy. A good example of this is the Gregor Mendel’s genetic experiment in 1866 – the first scientific description of genes and how they work. Today, we understand a fair bit more about genetics but there is much left to learn. As time passes, those people born today, well have a longer life expectancy than that of their parents. 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 US home. What that means is that we must look to the future to make sure that we have in place the resources to meet our needs as we age. Those include savings, insurance, and a legal framework that helps us to enjoy the later years of our life, whatever our life expectancy should be.

Written By

Jeff Hoyt

Editor in Chief

Since graduating from Harvard with an honors degree in Statistics, Jeff has been creating content in print, online, and on television. Much of his work has been dedicated to informing seniors on how to live better lives. As Editor-in-Chief of the personal… Learn More About Jeff Hoyt