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People in China Will Soon Outlive Americans, But the Spanish Will Outlive Us All

Iberian ham for sale at the Museum of Ham.Iberian ham for sale at the Museum of Ham.
Iberian ham for sale at the Museum of Ham. Jeffrey Greenberg—UIG via Getty Images

By 2040 Chinese residents may outlive Americans, predict researchers in this week’s Lancet. Using data from the 2016 Global Burden of Disease study, which examined data and estimates from 1990 to 2016, researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle projected the trends forward to make new estimates for 195 countries and territories.

Overall, the team predict life expectancy at birth to grow by an average 4.4 years for both men and women. But like life expectancy today, they expect the gains to be uneven. The authors write that, “by 2040, 31 countries were forecast to be still classified as low-income (ie, income per person less than US$1000, per the World Bank), while 36 countries averaged less than 10 years of education among populations aged 25 years and older.”

As a result, in the worst-case scenario people born in Lesotho might have a life expectancy of only 45.3 years.

The four leading countries, Spain (85.8 years, up from 82.9 in 2016), Japan (85.7, up from 83.7 in 2016), Singapore, and Switzerland, will have life expectancies over 85 years, while another 59 countries including China will surpass 80 years.

The U.S. will lag behind that group, with an average life expectancy of 79.8 years, compared to 78.7 in 2016. Drug-related deaths and obesity have contributed to the first back-to-back decline in life expectancy in the U.S. since the 1960s.

The five biggest drivers of health worldwide are high blood pressure, high body mass index, high blood sugar, tobacco use, and alcohol use, according to the researchers. They also predict that more non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and cancer, will continue to replace infectious diseases as causes of death.

But as for happiness, it turns out life expectancy and income are not the most crucial drivers. Neither rich and otherwise health Americans nor newly rich and healthy Chinese report being especially happy. Researchers writing today in Science called for the use of more complex well-being indicators alongside GDP and other metrics.