Harvard Health Letter

Lifetime achievements

Americans are staying healthier and living longer than ever before, although the United States lags behind other countries.

Life-expectancy figures are statistical crystal balls that predict the average number of years a person of a given age, sex, and race can be expected to live. Expected age at death is the pessimistic way to express the same idea. According to the latest figures, life expectancy in the United States is 77.6 years, up considerably from 75.4 in 1990, although still quite a way behind the Japanese, who (on average) reach their 80s.

These figures represent life expectancy at birth — that is, how long newborns are expected to live. We adults are not going to make it to 2083 like newborn babies. But the good news is that as you get older, your statistical chances of beating the current life expectancy at birth improve. Why? Because you've managed to dodge the mortal dangers that stalk younger lives: infant mortality, violence, car wrecks. There's also a healthy survivor effect: People with advantages derived from heredity or life circumstances are overrepresented in any older population.

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