Here are which states have the longest life expectancies — and which have the shortest

When it comes to life expectancy, not all states are created equal. At least according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released a report Thursday sharing the average lifespan in all 50 states and the District of Columbia during 2018. The report relied on a variety of information including mortality statistics, population estimates and Medicare data for individuals aged 66 to 99.

The average life expectancy in the U.S. as a whole came in at 78.7 years, with men averaging 76.2 years overall and women 81.2. But the numbers varied widely when it came to individual states. As in previous years, Hawaii ranked No.1 for life expectancy at 81 years, followed by California at 80.8, New York and Minnesota both at 80.5, and Connecticut at 80.4. West Virginia ranked the lowest overall at 74.4 years, preceded by Mississippi at 74.6, Alabama at 75.1 and Kentucky at 75.3 years.

Map of U.S. with states color coded to indicate average life expectancy; Hawaii, California and New York rank highest
Hawaii, California and New York rank highest in terms of life expectancy in the U.S. (Image: National Center for Health Statistics)

Eileen Crimmins, a professor at the University of Southern California's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and co-director of the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health, says life expectancy is an important data point. "It's basically an overall indicator of health — and it's one of the best ones," Crimmins tells Yahoo Life. There are many factors, she adds, that may lead to better health in some states. Wealth, better diet, more frequent exercise and access to health care are a few of the main ones.

Health care, in particular, is a major factor. "States that took Obamacare and took the federal government supplement to insure their uninsured populations, that played a role. New York was big on that, California was big on that," says Crimmins. "States that did not take that mandate tended to be in the South, [many of the] red states just didn't take the money and so they still have large uninsured populations, which has an effect because people don't go to the doctor."

Indeed, eight of the states with the lowest life expectancies in 2018 were located in the South, all of them red. Jennifer Ailshire, a professor and researcher at the USC/UCLA Center on Biodemography and Population Health, agrees that health care is a driving force behind low life expectancy in this region. "There are a lot of factors that determine population health, but the fact that these states consistently rank last in the nation really reflects their lack of investment in public health from the cradle to the grave."

Other things that may lower life expectancy in these states are guns, maternal mortality, suicide, chronic diseases and drug overdoses. The numbers take the biggest hit when individuals are dying at a young age, Crimmins explains. "If a baby dies at one year old, and on average the life expectancy is 80, then 79 years of life to live have been lost," she says. "A person who dies at 79, only one year has been lost."

Ailshire confirms that this is part of the reason that West Virginia consistently ranks last. "It is mainly driven by relatively higher death rates from things like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke [but] West Virginia also has the highest drug overdose mortality," she says. "They also have one of the highest infant mortality rates in the nation and that is a major factor in life expectancy calculations."

West Virginia has long been known as the epicenter of the opioid crisis, an epidemic that caused over 60,000 deaths In 2018 alone. "Opioid deaths make a pretty big hit on life expectancy because they're people in their twenties and thirties typically," says Crimmins. "And high infant mortality, which is a sign of very bad health, and high maternal mortality and high violent mortality — all these things would be the ones that would rank low."

So what is the top state, Hawaii, doing right? "Hawaii has been highest ranked in life expectancy for several years," says Ailshire. "This largely reflects their lower rates of death from leading causes of death such as cardiovascular disease and cancer."

"Hawaii has good access to health care because they have a pretty centralized system," adds Crimmins. "Native Hawaiians are pretty heavy themselves and they have bad diabetes, but Hawaii is full of people of all kinds. A lot of people with Asian heritage tend to have better health and probably better diets. And it's an outside place; people are into exercise and it's laid back, less stress."

Since this data covers only the year 2018, it remains to be seen what impact the COVID-19 pandemic — which has led to the deaths of more than 500,000 Americans — will have on U.S. life expectancy. In January, researchers from USC and Princeton University released a study suggesting it may shorten life expectancy by 1.13 years. Ailshire predicts that some states may move in the rankings as well, but nothing major.

"Clearly COVID mortality will have an enormous impact on 2020 life expectancy, to a degree unprecedented since the last world war," says Ailshire. "But the same factors that drive variability in health across U.S. states will determine state-to-state differences in the impact of COVID on their residents. So I suspect there may be a bit of movement in the rankings, but I would not anticipate any drastic reordering."

State-ranked life expectancy

Read more about life expectancy in the U.S.

1. Hawaii, 81.0 years

2. California, 80.8 years

3. New York, 80.5 years

4. Minnesota, 80.5 years

5. Connecticut, 80.4 years

6. Massachusetts, 80.1 years

7. Washington state, 80.0 years

8. Colorado, 80.0 years

9. New Jersey, 79.8 years

10. Rhode Island, 79.8 years

11. Oregon, 79.7 years

12. Utah, 79.6 years

13. Vermont, 79.3 years

14. North Dakota, 79.3 years

15. Wisconsin, 79.3 years

16. Iowa, 79.2 years

17. New Hampshire, 79.1 years

18. Nebraska, 79.1 years

19. Idaho, 79.0 years

20. Virginia, 79.0 years

21. South Dakota, 78.9 years

22. Florida, 78.9 years

23. Illinois, 78.8 years

24. Montana, 78.7 years

25. Arizona, 78.7 years

26. Maine, 78.6 years

27. Maryland, 78.5 years

28. Texas, 78.4 years

29. Pennsylvania, 78.1 years

30. Wyoming, 78.1 years

31. Kansas, 78.0 years

32. Alaska, 78.0 years

33. Nevada, 77.9 years

34. Delaware, 77.8 years

35. Michigan, 77.7 years

36. District of Columbia, 77.7 years

37. North Carolina, 77.6 years

38. Georgia, 77.2 years

39. New Mexico, 77.2 years

40. Indiana, 76.8 years

41. Ohio, 76.8 years

42. Missouri, 76.6 years

43. South Carolina, 76.5 years

44. Arkansas, 75.6 years

45. Oklahoma, 75.6 years

46. Louisiana, 75.6 years

47. Tennessee, 75.5 years

48. Kentucky, 75.3 years

49. Alabama, 75.1 years

50. Mississippi, 74.6 years

51. West Virginia, 74.4 years

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