US Counties With The Shortest Life Expectancy

Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota is entirely situated within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota is entirely situated within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Out of 3,142 counties in the United States, there are about 50 counties with the shortest life expectancy in the country. Most of these counties have a largely rural population except for Baltimore. In 24 counties, more than 50 percent of the population consists of non-Hispanic whites while 18 counties have a population of more than 50 percent African Americans. Additionally, 8 counties with the shortest life expectancy are made up of a majority population of Native Americans. Some of these counties include Oglala Lakota county in South Dakota, Union County in the state of Florida, Buffalo county in South Dakota, Owsley County in Kentucky and Tunica County in Mississippi.

US Counties with the Shortest Life Expectancy

Among the counties with the shortest life expectancy, five counties top the list with life expectancies under 70 years of age in 2014, namely Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota with 66.81 years, Union County in Florida (67.57), Todd County in South Dakota (68.52), Sioux County in North Dakota (68.59), and Buffalo County in South Dakota (69.05). Both South Dakota and Kentucky are in the top 10 three times with South Dakota in first, third, and fifth place, and Kentucky in sixth, seventh, and nine place. The Kentucky counties are all found within the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield, formerly having been economically dominated by coal mining. The three counties in South Dakota are entirely or mostly situated within Indian Reservations.

Oglala Lakota County

Previously known as Shannon County, Oglala Lakota County in South Dakota is entirely situated within the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Pine Ridge is the largest community with the county, and the tribal headquarters of the Oglala Sioux Tribe. As of 2010, the community had a population of just over three thousand people. The community was composed of 92.9% Native Americans in 2000 with 61% of the population living below the poverty line.

Union County

Union County is the smallest and second-poorest county and in the state of Florida. The county is 250 square miles in size and the population was just over 15.5 thousand people in 2010. The county is home to the Union Correctional Institution, previously the Florida State Prison, one of the largest prisons in the state, as well as the Union Juvenile Residential Facility. As of 2000, 14% of the population were living below the poverty line.

Todd County

Todd County in South Dakota is the third-poorest county in the United States with 48.3% of the population living below the poverty line as of 2000 increasing to 48.8% of the population by 2010. The county has a population of just over 10 thousand people as of 2010 and is 1,391 square miles in size. Todd County is entirely situated within the Rosebud Indian Reservation with Native Americans accounting for 86.5% of the population.

Sioux County

Sioux County in North Dakota is situated entirely within the Standing Rock Indian Reservation with Native Americans accounting for 82% of the population. The county is 1,128 square miles in size with a population of almost 4.5 thousand people in 2016. As of 2000, 39.2% of the population were living below the poverty line, increasing to 47.2% by 2010.

Buffalo County

Buffalo County is the fifth-poorest county in the state of South Dakota, with 49.3% of the population living below the poverty line in 2010, a decrease from 56.90% of the population in 2000. The county is 488 square miles in size, the majority of which is composed of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation. The population just topped 2,000 residents as of 2016, with Native Americans making up 79.4% as of 2014.

Factors Leading to a Short Life Expectancy

According to the Center for Disease Control, the average national life expectancy of the United States is 78.8 years. This is in stark contrast to the life expectancy of Shannon County where the residents, on average, live up to the age of 66.81 years according to official reports in 2014. The Oglala Lakota County (Shannon County) has consistently ranked as the county with the shortest life expectancy. Various factors can be attributed to the low life expectancy figures.


An efficient healthcare system often leads to a high life expectancy and fewer deaths from diseases. The United States spends by far the highest fraction of GDP on healthcare compared to other high-income countries. In 2007, the United States spent 16 percent of its GDP on healthcare systems. In 2015, the figures were astronomical at $3.2 trillion on healthcare and medical insurance alone. However, the high spending on healthcare per person does not directly contribute to a higher life expectancy. According to a new research, Americans have the lowest life expectancy at birth among the highly developed countries. This affects the mortality at younger ages and the overall average. Another exacerbating factor may be the lack of a universal healthcare. Nonetheless, a lack of a universal healthcare does not seem to make a difference since both insured and uninsured Americans receiver poorer healthcare compared to European counterparts.

High Number of Injury-related Deaths

While looking at life expectancy, most researchers center on the mortality rates of relatively older populations of above the age of 50. Compared to other countries, the death gap between the counties with the highest life expectancy and the lowest is determined by the young mortality rates. There is a high number of injury-related deaths that affect younger populations. The main causes include firearm injuries, motor-vehicle crashes, work-related accidents and drug poisonings.

High-risk Urban Environments

There is generally lower life expectancy in certain high-risk urban environments. This disparity across the US regions- the South and Midwest- has grown wider since the 1980s and affects certain groups of people. Black males living in these urban risk environments have a life expectancy 21 years lower than Asian females. Young and middle-aged male and females in these regions have a lower life expectancy compared to the lowest in developed nations. This contributes to a low national average.

Social and Demographic Factors

Socioeconomic disparities in the United States are heavily pronounced according to race and ethnicity. This has continuously affected the living conditions of various minority populations who are more exposed to poor healthcare, risky environments, violence, and pollutants. Segregation according to educational opportunities also affects the labor market success for African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics. As a result, there is low life expectancy because of demographics and social classification. Additionally, white middle-class Americans in certain regions get limited opportunities for better health compared to other developed nations.

Risk Factors and Individual Behavior

Obesity, smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, drug addiction, and lack of exercise are all factors which adversely affect the health of individuals. A variation in lifespan is greatly influenced by these risk factors and ultimately leads to a shorter lifespan for individuals.

How to Avert the Short Life Expectancy Problem?

This is good news as it shows a positive trend in increasing the lifespan of individuals. In the counties with the shortest life expectancy, health programs and services have been introduced with a strict focus on children. This will help reduce the number of young deaths and improve the overall health of individuals throughout their life course.

An improvement in education policies has also seen the gap between the highest and the lowest expectancy narrow down. A better education creates more opportunities which in turn leads to a higher standard of living.

Since short life expectancy is rife in poverty-stricken regions, income support programs and tax credit systems have reversed the trend in some of these counties. Economic support ensures that the people have greater access to improved healthcare facilities and that ensures a longer life.

US Counties With The Shortest Life Expectancy

RankCounty and state2014: Life expectancy (years)Majority population: 2014 (%}
1Oglala Lakota County (Shannon County), South Dakota66.81Native American: 92.9%
2Union County, Florida67.57Non-Hispanic White: 70.7%
3Todd County, South Dakota68.52Native American: 86.5%
4Sioux County, North Dakota68.59Native American: 82.0%
5Buffalo County, South Dakota69.05Native American: 79.4%
6Owsley County, Kentucky70.21Non-Hispanic White: 97.4%
7Breathitt County, Kentucky70.22Non-Hispanic White: 97.5%
8McDowell County, West Virginia70.27Non-Hispanic White: 89.0%
9Perry County, Kentucky70.60Non-Hispanic White: 95.9%
10Tunica County, Mississippi70.93African American: 75.1%

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