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By Lukas Pleva August 25, 2010

Rep. Alan Grayson says U.S. is 50th in the world in life expectancy

Instead of talking about whether President Barack Obama is a Muslim, lawmakers -- especially Republicans -- should do more to address challenges like unemployment and lagging performance in United States schools, U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, told Cenk Uygur, guest host for the MSNBC's The Ed Show, on Aug. 18, 2010.

"It‘s sad. Look, we really are cheating ourselves. This can be a heaven on Earth. This could be an outstanding place to live, the very top in the entire world. Instead, we‘re 50th in the world -- 50th in life expectancy, just below Albania. We are dead last in math test scores. And believe me, the math is the same in Seoul, Korea, as it is in here. It‘s the same math," Grayson said.

Is the U.S. really that low on the life expectancy scale? We decided to find out. 

Todd Jurkowski, Grayson's press secretary, directed us to the 2009 life expectancy estimates in the CIA World Factbook. The United States is, indeed, No. 50.

But the CIA has since updated those estimates. In 2010, Macau had the highest life expectancy at birth -- 84.36 years. The United States comes in at No. 49, with an average life expectancy of 78.11 years. Still, that's only slightly off from the figure that Grayson cited.

But we quickly found that other sources paint a different picture. 

The World Health Organization maintains its own life expectancy data. In 2008, the latest year for which the numbers are available, people in the U.S. had an average life expectancy of 78 years. That put us in a tie with the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Costa Rica, and Chile. The figures are all rounded to the nearest whole number, which means that numerous countries were tied. There are 30 countries that had higher life expectancy than the United States. 

Then there is the U.S. Census Bureau Statistical Abstract. In 2010, the United States came in at No. 50 with an average life expectancy of 78.2 years. Macau, a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China (PRC), came in first, with 84.4 years.

The United Nations Statistical Division provides a gender breakdown of life expectancy at birth. For men, Iceland came at the top, with 81 years. The United States was No. 18 (78 years). Again, due to whole-number rounding, the U.S. tied with the Netherlands, Malta, Austria, Ireland, Cyprus, the United Kingdom, Germany, Luxembourg, Greece and Belgium. For women, Japan dominates -- the average life expectancy is 87 years. The U.S. came in 34th (82 years). 

Finally, 2010 data from the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research institute in Washington D.C., put the United States at No. 41. We're tied with Reunion (an island in the Indian Ocean), French Guiana, Cuba, and Kuwait.

And that brings us to an important caveat with virtually all of the rankings. While it is technically true that the United States ranked 49th in the latest CIA World Factbook, consider some of the countries that had a higher ranking. Macau, for example ranked first, but it's less than one-sixth the size of Washington, D.C. San Marino, a state nestled inside Italy, came in at No. 11, but it has a population of only slightly more than 30,000 people. You get the picture -- some of the "countries" that ranked higher than the United States are, well, countries in name only.

To a get a better picture of where we stand, we wanted to see how the United States compares with its peers (that is, generally large, industrialized democracies). We consulted statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The latest year for which data are available for all 31 countries is 2007. Japan ranked first, with average life expectancy of 82.6 years. The United States came in at No. 25, with 77.9 years. So among large industrialized democracies, the U.S. is on the lower end of the spectrum.

Featured Fact-check

Grayson claimed that the United States ranks 50th in the world for life expectancy. We found a few sources that show that we're actually a bit higher. The Population Reference Bureau put us at No. 41, while data from the World Health Organization indicate that we may be in the low 30's. Still, we think that Grayson's underlying point that the U.S. isn't as high in life expectancy as one would think is valid, so we rate this Mostly True.

Our Sources

MSNBC, The Ed Show transcript, Aug. 18, 2010

E-mail interview, Todd Jurkowski, Press secretary for Rep. Alan Grayson, Aug. 23, 2010

E-mail and phone interview, Jay S. Olshansky, Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Aug. 23, 2010

CIA World Factbook, 2010 Life Expectancy Ratings, accessed Aug. 24, 2010

Wikipedia, CIA World Factbook rankings for 2009, accessed Aug. 24, 2010

World Health Organization, Global Health Observatory: Life Expectancy at Birth (years), accessed Aug. 24, 2010 (formatted data)

U.S. Census Bureau, The 2010 Statistical Abstract, accessed Aug. 24 (formatted data)

United Nations Statistics Division, Indicators on health, accessed Aug. 24, 2010 (formatted data for men and women)

E-mail interview, Ellen Carnevale, spokeswoman for Population Reference Bureau, Aug. 23, 2010

Population Reference Bureau, 2010 World Population Data Sheet, accessed Aug. 24, 2010 (formatted data)

OECD, Health Data for 2010, accessed Aug. 24, 2010 (formatted data)
 

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