US Life Expectancy Has Fallen Behind China

Life expectancy in China was on course to overtake that of the U.S. around 2027. Then the COVID-19 pandemic started.
AN ELDERLY IN HONG KONG, WHICH HAS LED THE WORLD IN LIFE EXPECTANCY SINCE 2010. PHOTO: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP​
AN ELDERLY IN HONG KONG, WHICH HAS LED THE WORLD IN LIFE EXPECTANCY SINCE 2010. PHOTO: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP

Chinese people now live longer than their U.S. counterparts, latest data showed. 

The average life expectancy of Chinese people has risen from 76.5 years in 2016 to 77.93 at present, Mao Qun’an, a senior official from the National Health Commission, announced on Tuesday. This puts it above that of the U.S., which stood at 76.6 years in 2021. 

Calculations in 2018 suggested that life expectancy in China was on course to overtake that of the U.S. around 2027, but the process has been sped up by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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The U.S. experienced a historic decline in life expectancy due to COVID-19, which became the third leading cause of death in the country in 2020 and 2021, as a new study by the National Cancer Institute found. 

More than a million have died from COVID in the U.S. by May this year, driving a major drop in life expectancy for the second year in a row. 

Published in April, a study based on government provisional data found a net loss of 2.26 years in U.S. life expectancy since 2019. It is now at the lowest in more than two decades, a trend Steven Woolf, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who conducted the study, described as “disturbing.”

China, in the meantime, aims to raise average life expectancy to 79 years by 2030. It has clamped down on childhood obesity, spent up to a billion dollars to build free fitness facilities, and even limited the time minors can spend on video games, all in an effort to promote the health of its citizens. 

In addition, the Chinese government follows a stringent zero-COVID policy that seeks to stamp out any infection with lockdowns and mass testing. It has helped the country keep its COVID death toll remarkably low, even if its official 5,200 COVID fatalities likely represent just a fraction of the true toll of the virus in the country.

But such a comparison does not necessarily reflect the full picture. 

“Life expectancy is an estimate of mortality rates in a population for a given year,” Woolf told VICE World News. “Neither estimate tells us anything about what life expectancy will be in the next year in either country and thus which country is excelling.” 

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