Where Do American Men Land on the Latest Life Expectancy Rankings?

It's not as bad as you think. But it could be a lot better.

An old man playing tennis on clay courts with a basket of tennis balls in the foreground
Why are Americans, and men in particular, losing out in longevity?
miodrag ignjatovic/Unsplash

With so many important global metrics heading in the wrong direction over the last 20 years — carbon emissions, refugee populations and the net worth of CEOs, to name a few — it might be a tad surprising to hear that we’re actually living longer. It’s true. On average, according to the World Health Organization, life expectancy increased globally by more than six years between 2000 and 2019, from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.4 years in 2019.

Unsurprisingly, those numbers have taken a bit of a nosedive in the near-two years since, as 4.87 million people have died from COVID-19, according to the WHO. But as we continue the push towards mass vaccination, the numbers should right themselves. (Keep in mind: life expectancy dropped an insane 11.8 years during the 1918 pandemic, before rapidly rebounding.)

While much of the 20th century was spent rectifying early-life mortality rates (advancements in vaccines and sanitation gave children a path to adulthood), the 21st century has seen a rapid deceleration in late-life mortality. Expanded medical care, alongside consistent education on the importance of heart healthy practices — you know: eat right, exercise, don’t smoke — have pushed the “senior citizen” age bracket higher and higher.

The United States has kept pace with this trend, though somewhat unimpressively, considering its economic might. As we’re currently behind countries like Cuba, Estonia and Lebanon on the life expectancy chart, it would seem that broad-scale longevity has less to do with GDP, and more to do with affordable housing, equitable healthcare and a mental health infrastructure that encourages long-term happiness.

That’s why — as crises like the opioid epidemic, obesity and suicide linger — some researchers expect America’s life expectancy ranking to plummet by the year 2040. The anticipated global rise in average life expectancy is 4.4 years between 2016 and 2040. But in the U.S., according to this particular study, it’s just 1.1.

At the moment, the average life expectancy for an American male is 76.3 years. By contrast, American women are expected to live 81.4 years. You can learn more about why women live longer than men here (it’s an 8% difference, on average, no matter the country) and see a chart of the male populations ahead of the U.S. here (we’re number 22 on the list).

Research from London-based healthcare company Manual recently published a number of charts featuring “male milestones,” among them: average age men lose their virginity, average age of marriage, average number of days for paid paternity leave, average age men retire and average age men die.

One huge takeaway? Bucking convention pays off in the longevity game, Sweden being a perfect example. Famous for its massive social welfare program, livability metrics, commitment to clean energy, low crime rates and sexual education (the country was the first to pass mandatory sex ed in schools, way back in 1955), Swedish men live longer than all but two populations in the entire world — Japanese and Swiss men. And it’s a close one. The Swedes top out at 81.3 years, while the Japanese and Swiss live to 81.4 and 81.9, respectively.

Cross-reference those findings with the other charts on display here, and you’ll find Sweden doing its own thing at every turn. They retire earlier than most nations, at an average of 62 years old. They get 480 days of paid paternity leave, which is 115 days longer than the second closest nation. They feel little pressure to get married, hitching up at 36.7 years old.

Not to mention: they have a high number of sexual partners over the course of a lifetime (11.8), and start earlier than most nations, at an average age of 16.2 years old. That isn’t always a positive, of course, but in this case (as with other Nordic nations at the top of those charts) it suggests an open, educated embrace of male sexuality.

Many Americans are tired of hearing about Scandinavian systems and philosophies. Fair enough. But if the United States want to consider itself a “top” nation, what better metric is there than seeing its population live long, healthy lives? The global life expectancy is going to continue to go up, whether we’re aboard or not. Let’s hitch a ride with the nations that are doing it right.

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