When we hear that the average life expectancy for Americans born in a given year was 40 years, that does not mean people who reached the age of 40 were already “old” and likely to die quite quickly thereafter. To understand actual lives, we need more than simple averages of life expectancy at birth. One way to gain more accurate information is to look at the average life expectancy for those who survived to certain ages. For example, data show that life expectancies for those who survived to the age of five were much higher than the average life expectancy from birth. This indicates that many people died before reaching the age of five, thus significantly lowering the statistical average.
The base graph that follows shows (in ten-year intervals) the average life expectancy for all Americans born from 1850 through 2000. You can then click on the radial buttons below the graph to compare this base graph to several other graphs that will help refine what that basic “average” really meant. For example, clicking on “men at age 5” will show you how much longer a male who was five years old in that year could expect to live. The gap between the life expectancy for a given age and the average life expectancy from birth represents all the people who died before reaching that age, and thus lowered the average life expectancy from birth. The wide gap in 1850, for example, shows that many people died young; the narrowed gap in 2000 shows that far fewer people died young. Starting with the graph for women at birth, the captions will guide you through the graphs, but you are also free to compare any two graphs at any time.
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