(Bloomberg) -- Steady improvements in American life expectancy have stalled, and moreAmericans are dying at younger ages. But for companiesstraining under the burden of their pension obligations, thedistressing trend could have a grim upside: Ifpeople don’t end up living as long as they were projectedto just a few years ago, their employers ultimately won’t haveto pay them as much in pension and other lifelong retirementbenefits.

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In 2015, the American death rate—the age-adjusted share ofAmericans dying—rose slightly for the first time since1999. And over the last two years, at least 12 large companies,from Verizon to General Motors, have said recent slips inmortality improvement have led them to reduce their estimates forhow much they could owe retirees by upward of a combined $9.7billion, according to a Bloomberg analysis of company filings.“Revised assumptions indicating a shortened longevity,” forinstance, led Lockheed Martin to adjust its estimated retirementobligations downward by a total of about $1.6 billion for 2015and 2016, it said in its most recent annual report.

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Mortality trends are only a small piece of the calculationcompanies make when estimating what they’ll owe retirees, andindeed, other factors actually led Lockheed’s pension obligationsto rise last year. Variables such as asset returns, salary levels,and health care costs can cause big swings in what companies expectto pay retirees. The fact that people are dying slightly youngerwon't cure corporate America’s pension woes—but the fact thatcompanies are taking it into account shows just how seriousthe shift in America’s mortality trends is.

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It's not just corporate pensions, either; the shift alsoaffects Social Security, the government’s program forretirees. The most recent data available “show continuedmortality reductions that are generally smaller than thoseprojected,” according to a July report from theprogram’s chief actuary. Longevity gains fell short of whatwas projected in last year’s report, leading to a slightimprovement in the program’s financial outlook.

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“Historically, mortality rates annually have tended to come downyear-over-year,” says R. Dale Hall, managing director ofresearch at the Society of Actuaries. The professional associationcompiles mortality data that many private pension plans use intheir projections. “There really has been a little bit of slowdownin mortality improvement in the United States,” Hall says.

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Absent a war or an epidemic, it's unusual and alarming for lifeexpectancies in developed countries to stop improving, let alone toworsen. “Mortality is sort of the tip of the iceberg,” saysLaudan Aron, a demographer and senior fellow at the UrbanInstitute. “It really is a reflection of a lot of underlyingconditions of life.” The falling trajectory of American lifeexpectancies, especially when compared to those in some otherwealthy countries, should be “as urgent a national issue as anyother that’s on our national agenda,” she says.

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Actuaries use two main factors to project death rates into thefuture: They start with current mortality levels—the percentages ofpeople who die at a given age—and then make predictions about howthose percentages might change with developments such as newmedical treatments or changes to smoking or obesity rates. Forinstance, the widespread prescribing of cholesterol-loweringstatins in the 1990s was “a huge driver of mortality improvement,”says Eric Keener, senior partner and chief actuary atAon’s U.S. retirement practice. If medical science producesnew treatments for Alzheimer’s disease or cancer, they couldhave similar effects.

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Death rates for Americans over the age of 50 have improved, onaverage, by 1 percent each year since 1950, according to ananalysis by the Society of Actuaries, though there’s a lot ofvariation in any given year. From 2000 to 2009, that long-termtrend seemed to be accelerating, with annual improvements of 1.5 to2 percent—but then those gains stalled. From 2010 to 2014, deathrates were only improving by about half a percent peryear.

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In 1970, a 65-year-old American could expect to liveanother 15.2 years on average, until just past their 80th birthday.By 2010, a 65-year-old could expect to live to 84.

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But the increases have slowed down since then. Life expectancyat 65 rose by just about four months between 2010 and2015—half the improvement recorded between 2005 and 2010.

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In 2014, the Society of Actuaries updated its baseline mortalitytables for the first time since 2000 toreflect significant gains in life expectancies seenthrough 2008—a major revision that predicted future improvementsbased partly on that trend. That led many companies, expectingtheir retired employees to live longer and longer, to revisetheir estimates of pension obligations upward.

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But as it turned out, those assumptions were too optimisticabout how fast death rates would keep improving. Updates in thelast two years, based on more recent mortality data, havepulled down companies’ estimates of what they’ll owe futureretirees. The 2016 update would lower pension obligations by about1.5 percent to 2 percent, all else being equal, according to theSociety of Actuaries report. (The group draws on data from theSocial Security Administration, the Centers for Disease Control andPrevention, and the Centers for Medicare and MedicaidServices.)

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And because accurate death records take a long time for thegovernment to compile, the revised estimates published in 2016incorporated mortality data only through 2014. The picture for 2015looks bleaker still: The overall U.S. death rate increased thatyear, the CDC has since reported.

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It’s still unclear exactly how Americans’ waninglife-expectancy gains will mean for public-sector pensionobligations, but the effect will likely be similar. TheSociety of Actuaries’ tables are designed for private-sectorretirement plans; the group is still working onan update for public-employee pensions.

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There’s no simple answer for why longevity gains areslowing. For years, economists and public health experts havebeen trying to ascertain what’s behind America’s troubling deathtrends, among them a rise in death rates for certain demographicgroups. A much-discussed 2015 paper suggested that mortality wasrising for middle-aged white Americans, citing suicides, drugoverdoses, and alcohol, collectively sometimes referred to as“deaths of despair.” Women have been particularly affected.

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While overall mortality rates are influenced by deaths frominfancy to old age, pension payouts primarily reflect how longpeople survive after retirement. But looking just at people over65, the death rate worsened in 2015 for that group as well,according to a July report published by the Society of Actuaries.That was the first reversal for retirement-age Americans since1999.

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“That’s actually rather remarkable,” says Keener, the Aonactuary. “Even in the previous years, you’ve seen a slower degreeof improvement for the pensioners, but you haven’t seen a declinein life expectancy.”

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The broader trend isn’t unique to the U.S. A July publicationfrom the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries in the United Kingdomfound that the U.S., Canada, and Britain have all experiencedsimilarly slowing gains since 2011. That report suggested thecombination of the recession and cuts to social safety-net programsmay have played a role. “These signs should be taken as warningsthat worsened health care, behaviour and environment can reversedecades of success in health and longevity,” wrote Joseph Lu, chairof the Institute’s mortality research committee.

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Changes to life expectancy in the U.K. could cut 310 billionpounds from British private-sector pension obligations, or 15percent of the total liability, PwC estimated in May, althoughother actuaries have called that figure “relatively extreme.”

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The question actuaries can’t yet answer is whether the slowdownis a short-term blip or a more permanent shift. If mortalityimproved by 1 percent a year for most of the past 70 years, mightthe U.S. revert to that soon? Or, Keener asks, “is this reallya new reality that we’re living in?”

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