Why Is Our Life Expectancy Dropping?

I just ran across a disturbing article — Life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped for the second year in a row.  An editorial in the journal BMJ entitled “Failing Health of the U.S.” (http://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k496 ) considers this “alarming because life expectancy has risen for much of the past century in developed countries, including the US. ”  We had the highest life expectancy in 1960 as measured by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — 2.4 years higher than average for OECD countries.  But things started changing in the 1980s and our life expectancy fell below the OECD average in 1998.  We’re now 1.5 years lower.  Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University and the editorial’s lead author, says “Something is amiss in the health of Americans, and the country, on a population level, is sick and dying earlier.”   Why?

Of course, there is no one reason.  The current opioid epidemic is one reason.  “That’s certainly a big factor, but it’s also a larger problem that’s been going on for decades,” Woolf says. “We know there are deeper systemic causes, that paint a picture of hopelessness and despair and struggling with difficult living conditions.”  So other factors seem to be at work.  For example, Woolf and co-author Laudan Aron, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, published a study in 2013 that found Americans have poorer health in many areas — birth outcomes, injuries, homicides, adolescent pregnancies, HIV/AIDS rates, obesity, diabetes and heart disease.  Lifestyle factors such as high-calorie diets, drug abuse, gun ownership, living in cities designed for cars instead of pedestrians and lack of universal health care also play a role.  And while fatal-drug-overdose rates have increased dramatically, death rates from alcohol abuse and suicides have also gone up.

The really hard part is coming up with solutions.  Woolf thinks a major step would be to strengthen the middle class — “What people in the health field would recommend is improvements in education, employment, and economic opportunities for the low-income and middle-class segments of our population—and those same investments are going to improve economic prosperity and social mobility for much of America….”

But, in the current political climate, will we?

For the complete analysis, see “Drugs, Alcohol and Suicide Are Causing Life Expectancy in America to Drop Dramatically” by Amanda MacMillan at    http://time.com/5138349/drugs-alcohol-suicide-life-expectancy/?

 

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