“Life expectancy in the U.S. dropped for the second year in a row in 2021,” reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in August.

The decline—from roughly 77 years to 76 years—brought us back to our 1996 level. (Our life expectancy of 76 is an average of age 73 for men and age 79 for women.) Covid was the main culprit, though deaths due to “unintentional injuries” also climbed, thanks in part to a rise in fentanyl and other synthetic opioid overdoses.

That said, diet and exercise clearly play a role in five of the top ten killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, and kidney disease. (Tobacco, of course, is still the leading cause of cancer.) And a healthy diet and exercise may lower the risk of dementia due to silent strokes or other damage to the brain’s blood vessels, which is often diagnosed as Alzheimer’s.

In 2019 (pre-Covid), life expectancy in 39 countries was higher than it was in the U.S. (78½ years, at the time). In Australia, Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and several other countries, the average person lived to 82 or more. Clearly, we can do better. 

To download a larger, printable version of this chart, click here.

Leading causes of death in 2020

(Each box indicates the number of deaths per age group.)

table of leading causes of death
Notes: COPD is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Hypertension can be lethal, but it is more often an underlying cause of stroke, heart disease, or heart failure. Data for more recent years is not yet available.