Average number of years a person can expect to live. The 2023 County Health Rankings used data from 2018-2020 for this measure.
Life Expectancy is a familiar and important population health outcome measure and can be easier to interpret than other mortality measures.
Data and methods
National Center for Health Statistics - Mortality Files
Data on deaths and births were provided by NCHS and drawn from the National Vital Statistics System (NVSS). These data are submitted to the NVSS by the vital registration systems operated in the jurisdictions legally responsible for registering vital events (i.e., births, deaths, marriages, divorces, and fetal deaths). In prior years of the Rankings, Premature Death was calculated by the National Center for Health Statistics, but this year the Mortality-All County (micro-data) file was requested. This allowed us to calculate Premature Death and Life Expectancy ourselves. While most calculations of mortality rates can be downloaded from CDC WONDER, the calculation of Years of Potential Life Lost and Life Expectancy requires raw data files.
Key Measure Methods
Life Expectancy is an average
Life Expectancy measures the average number of years from birth a person can expect to live, according to the current mortality experience (age-specific death rates) of the population. Life Expectancy calculations are based on the number of deaths in a given time period and the average number of people at risk of dying during that period, allowing us to compare data across counties with different population sizes.
Life Expectancy is age-adjusted
Age is a non-modifiable risk factor, and as age increases, poor health outcomes are more likely. Life Expectancy is age-adjusted in order to fairly compare counties with differing age structures.
What deaths count toward Life Expectancy?
Deaths are counted in the county where the individual lived, regardless of where the death occurred.
Some data are suppressed
A missing value is reported for counties with fewer than 5,000 population-years-at-risk in the time frame.
Life Expectancy includes mortality of all age groups in a population instead of focusing just on premature deaths and thus can be dominated by deaths of the elderly.1 This could draw attention to areas with higher mortality rates among the oldest segment of the population, where there may be little that can be done to change chronic health problems that have developed over many years. However, this captures the burden of chronic disease in a population better than premature death measures.2
Furthermore, the calculation of Life Expectancy is complex and not easy to communicate. Methodologically, it can produce misleading results caused by hidden differences in age structure, is sensitive to infant and child mortality, and tends to be overestimated in small populations.3,4
Can This Measure Be Used to Track Progress
This measure can be used to track progress with some caveats. Life expectancy is a very long-term health outcome, effects on which might not be seen for years or even decades. Life Expectancy as a measure also changes much more minutely than other mortality measures due to its calculation. Coupling these matters with the 3-year average provided in the County Health Rankings means that small changes, especially in small communities, may be difficult to detect.
Finding More Data
Disaggregation means breaking data down into smaller, meaningful subgroups. Disaggregated data are often broken down by characteristics of people or where they live. Disaggregated data can reveal inequalities that are otherwise hidden. These data can be disaggregated by:
- Subcounty Area
The County Health Rankings provides life expectancy estimates by race. The U.S. Small-area Life Expectancy Estimates Project (USALEEP) produces estimates of life expectancy at birth for most census tracts in the United States from 2010-2015. Life expectancy estimates by gender for counties can also be accessed through the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) website.
You can also use the County Health Rankings’ Mortality and Life Expectancy Calculator if you have information on the population and deaths in the geography of interest to calculate Life Expectancy estimates.
1 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Premature mortality in the United States: Public health issues in the use of years of potential life lost. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports. 1986;35(suppl 2):1S-11S.
2 Dranger E, Remington P. YPLL: A Summary Measure of Premature Mortality Used in Measuring the Health of Communities. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. 2004: 5(7).
3 Silcocks PB, Jenner DA, Reza R. Life expectancy as a summary of mortality in a population: statistical considerations and suitability for use by health authorities. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health. 2001 Jan 1;55(1):38-43.
4 Eayres D, Williams ES. Evaluation of methodologies for small area life expectancy estimation. Journal Epidemiology and Community Health. 2004; 58(3):243–9.