NC Medical Journal Shows How NC Hopes to Beat the Downward Trend in Life Expectancy

News | September 2, 2022


Kaitlin Ugolik Phillips


August 31, 2022 (Morrisville, NC) – As the United States faces a historic drop in life expectancy, the September/October issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal features recommendations for improving longevity and well-being for all North Carolinians—and all Americans—regardless of race, gender, class, or geography. The theme of this issue is “Improving Life Expectancy in North Carolina,” and it is available at The issue features commentaries from 22 North Carolina researchers and practitioners on major contributors to premature death, such as infant mortality, cardiovascular disease, motor vehicle injuries, child fatalities, social drivers, overdose, and incarceration.   

New research from the National Center for Health Statistics depicts the steepest decline in life expectancy in almost a century, with the average American now expected to live to age 76, down from age 79 in 2019. Native Americans and Alaska Natives have experienced the sharpest drop in life expectancy—members of these populations can now expect to live to age 75 on average.

This national setback, credited in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and its disparate impact on historically marginalized communities, comes as North Carolina researchers, clinicians, advocates, and public health professionals strive to lower maternal and infant mortality and improve life expectancy through levers for change outlined by the Healthy North Carolina 2030 report. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, North Carolina’s already below-average life expectancy has decreased across all gender and racial groups, according to the State Center for Health Statistics. Black and American Indian residents have experienced the steepest decreases.

But North Carolina has also been a hub of innovation for improving life expectancy and combating health disparities. In the latest issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal, a health policy and research publication of the North Carolina Institute of Medicine and The Duke Endowment, authors meet the moment with data, analysis, and personal and professional reflections on the multifaceted roots of the problem and, most importantly, clear program results and policy recommendations for solving it.

“The Healthy North Carolina 2030 plan set an aggressive goal of achieving an average life expectancy of 82 years for North Carolinians by 2030.  However, North Carolina saw a decrease of life expectancy across all races to an average of 76.4 years in 2020,” said issue guest editor ClarLynda Williams-DeVane, senior deputy director of the NC Division of Public Health. “This fact, in addition to the report of a nationwide decrease in life expectancy of three years requires bold, innovative, and collaborative approaches to turn the curve and improve the health of ALL North Carolinians.”

In this issue, authors examine the intersection of life expectancy and social vulnerability by ZIP code; describe the state’s Perinatal Health Strategic Plan for addressing inequities across the life course and its Child Fatality Task Force’s efforts to improve the safety of children through legislation; show the impact of postpartum Medicaid expansion on life expectancy; demonstrate how a post-incarceration health program and advocacy for heart health save lives; and demystify “deaths of despair.”

“The historic drop of almost three years in overall life expectancy for Americans makes our country an outlier in our region and the world,” said Kathy C. Colville, president and CEO of the NCIOM and co-publisher of the NCMJ. “In order to address this, we must understand the reasons why Americans are dying prematurely. This issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal offers us evidence-backed insights into how to reverse this disturbing trend.”

“The data on declining life expectancy is alarming.  It underscores the urgent need to understand the drivers of health disparities so that we can collectively invest in improving health and well-being. This issue of the North Carolina Medical Journal reflects important work of some of our state’s top researchers and practitioners to understand both the drivers of health and opportunities to improve longevity and well-being for all,” said Lin B. Hollowell, director of health care at The Duke Endowment and co-publisher of the NCMJ.

Read the latest issue of the NCMJ here.