Abstract Previous research found evidence for a transition from mortality compression (declining lifespan variability) to mortality delay (increasing ages at death) in low-mortality countries. We specifically assessed the year at which increases in life expectancy at birth transitioned from being predominantly due to mortality compression to being predominantly due to mortality delay in 26 European countries, Japan, and the United States of America (USA), 1950–2014. To unsmoothed age- and sex-specific death rates from the Human Mortality Database, we applied the CoDe (compression and delay) mortality model. Among women, the transition first occurred in the USA around 1950, then in North-Western Europe (1955–1970) and Southern Europe (1970–1975), and still later in Eastern Europe. Among men, the transition occurred about 10 years later and is still incomplete in Eastern Europe. We identified four stages: (1) predominance of compression mainly due to mortality declines at young ages, (2) declining importance of mortality compression due to the decreasing impact of mortality declines at young ages, (3) delay becomes predominant due to the increasing impact of mortality delay and the counterbalancing effects of mortality compression/expansion at different ages, and (4) strong predominance of delay accompanied by strong adult mortality declines and declining compression at old ages. Our results suggest that life expectancy and maximum lifespan will increase further. With mortality delay, premature mortality and old-age mortality are shifting towards older ages.