17th-century English life expectancy was only about 35 years, largely because infant and child mortality remained high. Life expectancy was under 25 years in the early Colony of Virginia, and in seventeenth-century New England, about 40 percent died before reaching adulthood. During the Industrial Revolution, the life expectancy of children increased dramatically. The under-5 mortality rate in London decreased from 745 in 1730–1749 to 318 in 1810–1829.
Cities also experience a wide range of life expectancy based on neighborhood breakdowns. This is largely due to economic clustering and poverty conditions that tend to associate based on geographic location. Multi-generational poverty found in struggling neighborhoods also contributes. In United States cities such as Cincinnati, the life expectancy gap between low income and high income neighborhoods touches 20 years.
Life expectancy is also likely to be affected by exposure to high levels of highway air pollution or industrial air pollution. This is one way that occupation can have a major effect on life expectancy. Coal miners (and in prior generations, asbestos cutters) often have lower life expectancies than average. Other factors affecting an individual's life expectancy are genetic disorders, drug use, tobacco smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, access to health care, diet and exercise.
In her extensive review of the existing literature, Kalben concluded that the fact that women live longer than men was observed at least as far back as 1750 and that, with relatively equal treatment, today males in all parts of the world experience greater mortality than females. Kalben's study, however, was restricted to data in Western Europe alone, where demographic transition occurred relatively early. In countries such as Hungary, Bulgaria, India and China, males continued to outlive females into the twentieth century. Of 72 selected causes of death, only 6 yielded greater female than male age-adjusted death rates in 1998 in the United States. With the exception of birds, for almost all of the animal species studied, males have higher mortality than females. Evidence suggests that the sex mortality differential in people is due to both biological/genetic and environmental/behavioral risk and protective factors.
Pre-school education also plays a large role in life expectancy. It was found that high-quality early stage childhood education had positive effects on health. Researchers discovered this by analyzing the results of the Carolina Abecedarian Project (ABC) finding that the disadvantaged children who were randomly assigned to treatment had lower instances of risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases in their mid-30s.
The starting point for calculating life expectancy is the age-specific death rates of the population members. If a large number of data is available, a statistical population can be created that allow the age-specific death rates to be simply taken as the mortality rates actually experienced at each age (the number of deaths divided by the number of years "exposed to risk" in each data cell). However, it is customary to apply smoothing to iron out, as much as possible, the random statistical fluctuations from one year of age to the next. In the past, a very simple model used for this purpose was the Gompertz function, but more sophisticated methods are now used.
However, anthropologist John D. Hawks criticizes the popular conflation of life span (life expectancy) and maximum life span when popular science writers falsely imply that the average adult human does not live significantly longer than their ancestors. He writes, "[a]ge-specific mortality rates have declined across the adult lifespan. A smaller fraction of adults die at 20, at 30, at 40, at 50, and so on across the lifespan. As a result, we live longer on average... In every way we can measure, human lifespans are longer today than in the immediate past, and longer today than they were 2000 years ago... age-specific mortality rates in adults really have reduced substantially."