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Falling Short of Highest Life Expectancy: How Many Americans Might Have Been Alive in the Twentieth Century?

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Life expectancy at birth in the United States during the twentieth century was lower than in many other highly developed countries. We investigate how this mortality disadvantage in the last 100 years translates into the number of hypothetical lives lost and their sex and age structure. We estimate the hypothetical US population if it had experienced in each decade since 1900 the mortality level of the country with the then highest life expectancy and compare the results to the actual figures in 2000. By 2000, the number of additional people who could have been alive had the mortality levels in the United States been as low as those in countries with the highest life expectancy was 66 million. This number is distributed equally between males and females. Suboptimal mortality at reproductive ages is crucial for the cumulative effect of potential lives lost, resulting from premature deaths of women who could still become first-time mothers or bear additional children. Out of the 66 million additional persons who could have been alive in 2000, 45 million are attributable to those indirect deaths. Although the differences in the composition of the population by sex and age under the two mortality regimes are minor, the majority of people who might have been alive—54 million—were of working age or younger.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Research Scientist, Social Science Research Institute, Duke University. 2: Assistant Professor of Demography, University of Rostock, Germany, and Research Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock.

Publication date: September 1, 2009

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