Life expectancy is one of the most important and commonly cited indicators of population health — and in the United States, life expectancy is falling at a historic rate.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy at birth declined by 1.5 years in 2020, the largest one-year decline since World War II.

The CDC attributes the decline to the COVID-19 pandemic and 93,000 drug overdose deaths — an all-time one-year high. Homicide, diabetes, and liver disease were also contributing factors. 

While the national trend is alarming, there are considerable regional variations in life expectancy across the country.

As of 2019, the most recent available year of state-level data, life expectancy at birth in Pennsylvania is 78.5 years, the 32nd highest among states and slightly lower than the comparable national average of 79.2 years.

Both at individual and population levels, life expectancy is closely linked to certain behavioral factors.

For example, smoking is the leading cause of death in the United States, and adults in Pennsylvania are more likely to smoke than average. An estimated 17.9% of the 18-and-older population in the state are smokers — meaning they smoke every day or most days and have smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime.

Nationwide, 16.6% of the adult population are smokers.

Data on average life expectancy at birth is from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute joint program’s 2021 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps report.

Additional data is from both CHR and the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.


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