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From 2020 to 2021, life expectancy across the United States fell from 77 to 76.4 years, according to final death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and its National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

The drop brought life expectancy to its lowest level since 1996, suggesting that the overall health of Americans is declining.

But what exactly does life expectancy mean? And how does it vary by state?

How does the government define life expectancy?

Life expectancy — also called life expectancy at birth — is a projection of what the average age of death will be for people born today. The estimate is based on age-specific death rates reported in the year of birth.

Note that life expectancy is not the same as the average age of death and the death rate. The average age of death in the US is calculated using the ages of every person who died in a given year. Meanwhile, the death rate is based on the proportion of people who died in a specific year.

You can learn more about these differences by checking out our full definition of life expectancy.

Where is life expectancy highest and lowest?

The state with the highest life expectancy at birth is Hawaii. In 2020, its life expectancy was 80.7 years, followed by Washington at 79.2 years and Minnesota at 79.1 years.

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Three states — California, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire — are tied for fourth place, each with a life expectancy of 79 years.

On the other hand, Mississippi has the lowest life expectancy across all states at 71.9 years. It’s followed by West Virginia and Louisiana, with life expectancies of 72.8 years and 73.1 years, respectively.

Notably, most states with lower life expectancies were in the South, whereas states with higher life expectancies were mostly in the West and the Northeast. Lower life expectancy is also more prevalent among non-Hispanic Black Americans, low-income populations, and people with low levels of educational attainment, according to the NCHS.

Why is life expectancy falling?

One of the major factors that led to the drop in life expectancy from 2020 to 2021 was the COVID-19 pandemic. As more Americans die in a given year, the life expectancy for those born in the same year decreases. And COVID-19 data from the NCHS reflects that: From 2020 to 2021, the number of deaths from COVID-19 increased by 18.8%, suggesting that the pandemic played a role in the decline.

Besides COVID-19, other leading causes of death in the US in 2021 included heart disease, cancer, and accidental injuries. From 2020 to 2021, age-adjusted death rates increased by 3.3% for heart disease, 1.7% for cancer, and 12.3% for unintentional injuries.

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