The United States has long been considered the global leader in almost every arena of importance from military might to economic competition. Given its enormous advantages in so many fields, it is shocking to learn that life expectancy is below the average of other wealthy nations—and it is falling. The average life expectancy among the nations that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes 35 nations like France and Denmark, is 80.3 years; the American life expectancy is 78.6 years.
This is a stark contrast to the 1960’s when the U.S. led the world in life expectancy. Although these figures are a testament to the accelerated development of these other nations, they also point to some troubling issues in American society. The primary causes of this fall in life expectancy are substance abuse, suicide and poverty, but there are other contributing factors like a rise in obesity, diabetes and other chronic health conditions.
Current Mortality Rates
A look at the mortality rates of American population segments suggests that only a few, key demographics are experiencing a higher number of deaths. In 2015, the death rate for the entire U.S. population rose 1.2 percent, the first increase since 1999. These groups include African-American males, white males and white females. Mortality rates among African-American females and Hispanics remained largely the same.
For the first time since the early 1990’s when the AIDS epidemic dramatically cut down whole swathes of the American public, life expectancy in the U.S. is falling once again. Life expectancy has dropped for two years in a row. In 2015, it dropped from 78.8 to 78.7, then again it fell to 78.6 in 2016. This is the first time this figure has fallen in two consecutive years since 1962-1963, when influenza swept the nation. Additionally, the number of years lived after age 65 has remained unchanged, suggesting that, once again, it is younger Americans who are losing their lives.
The leading cause of death remains cancer and heart disease. Almost 614,000 Americans died in 2014 from heart disease, or about 25 percent of all U.S. deaths. This makes heart disease the leading cause of death in the nation, followed by cancer which claimed 591,000 lives in 2014. Both diseased have killed more Americans in recent years as more Americans have lived past the age of 65; heart disease deaths climbed 3 percent 2011 and 2014, while cancer deaths rose 2.6 percent.
The Opioid Crisis
Although diseases like cancer and heart disease are the top killers of Americans, deaths related to these conditions have remained relatively stable compared to the leading cause of the fall in life expectancy—substance abuse. Abuse of illicit substances like heroin and alcohol have long contributed to shortened lives. From 1970 to 2000, U.S. life expectancy rose, on average, 2.5 months annually, but this has slowed since 2000 and reversed in 2014. The slowdown beginning in 2000 is almost certainly related to drug overdoses which hit 17,000 that year.
By 2016, the number of people dying annually from drug overdoses is four times as high. According to one estimate 59,000 to 65,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, but the startling aspect of this figure is that the number is growing larger at a faster rate every year. In 2015, almost 52,000 people died from overdoses of illicit substances, with 33,000 of these related to opioids. Between 2006 and 2014, the number of overdose deaths increased at a rate of roughly 3 percent per annum, but from 2014 to 2016, the rate was 18 percent each year.
In the years leading up to this crisis, the medical establishment had re-prioritized pain management for physicians. This emphasis on mitigating patient discomfort often led to more physicians prescribing powerful and potentially addictive opioid pain relievers with little or no discretion. It is only as the scope of the opioid crisis has become clear that medical authorities have issued new standards that limit the role of opioids in pain management.
Poverty, Chronic Illness and Suicide
Although drugs are a lethal issue plaguing communities across the nation, there is another life-threatening issue that is dragging down life expectancies. Illnesses like obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure account for almost 10 percent of all U.S. deaths. Many of these chronic illnesses are related to lifestyle choices like poor diet, lack of exercise and sedentary habits. Deaths related to these chronic illnesses far outweigh more publicized health crises like opioid overdoses.
Many of these chronic illnesses are linked to socioeconomic conditions in the country. There are a rapidly growing number of Americans who live impoverished lives due to stagnant wages and financial inequality. This feeds into an emotional malaise that manifests as chronic anxiety and depression that is increasingly prevalent in poorer communities.
A report published in Social Science and Medicine reveals that Americans live shorter lifespans in states with less of a social safety net. States with more robust welfare and health care programs can expect their residents to live longer. The study also argues that if the U.S. social welfare programs were comparable to that of other wealthy nations, American life expectancy would be 3.77 years longer.
As the emotional health of the nation has fallen, another cause of shortening lifespans has ratcheted up—suicides. Between 1999 and 2014, the rate of suicide across the nation rose 24 percent. This increase manifested most among white, rural Americans aged 25 to 59. It appears that collapse of local industries, job loss and dimmer financial prospects are playing a key role in the deterioration of the emotional health of many low-income Americans.
Despite the troubling news about life expectancy in the U.S., you should keep in mind that these figures are only general predictors. With the right lifestyle choices, health care and financial planning, you and your loved ones may live far past the national average. To learn more about how to extend your life, please visit Boost Health Insurance.