How disadvantage became deadly in America




Much has been made of America’s life expectancy deficit, but focusing on a statistic which is an average for the whole population masks truly staggering disparities at the extremes. For men at the bottom of the US economic ladder, it’s even worse. My calculations suggest the average age of death in that group is just 36 years old, compared with 55 in the Netherlands and 57 in Sweden.


In most wealthy countries, if you’re desperately unlucky in the longevity stakes, you succumb to cancer before you reach 60. But if you’re unlucky in the US, you die from a drug overdose or gunshot wound by 40. Which brings us again to the most shocking statistic: among the least fortunate 10 per cent of American men, the average age at death is 36.

Looking at different regions within the US paints a similar picture. Conditions such as obesity shorten the lives of rich and poor alike, but the most uniquely American afflictions have steep socio-economic gradients. Wealthy Americans who live in the parts of the country with high opioid use and gun violence live just as long as those who live where fentanyl addiction and gunshot incidents are relatively rare. But poor Americans live far shorter lives if they grow up surrounded by guns and drugs than if they don’t.


Publication Date: 13 October 2023

Publication Site: Financial Times