It is ironic that with all the plans and money the United States has invested in its healthcare, infants born in 2017 have a lower chance of living long lives compared to their counterparts in previous years. That is because, for the second time in a row and the second time in recent US history, the country’s life expectancy experienced a negative shift.
2017 represented the year when medical advancements were made. Fewer people were dying of cancer and cardiovascular diseases because treatments were available. Yet even with these numbers, the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) estimated a drop of about 0.1 in the life expectancy for people in the US irrespective of their sex and race. The last time a drop like this was seen in the US was in the 1960s. So, what are the numbers behind the surprising downward shift and what is behind them? Why is it that a country with seemingly numerous resources poured into public health and healthcare plans is experiencing lower life expectancies the closer it moves to medical breakthroughs? These are some of the questions we will be tackling in this feature.
Crunching the Life Expectancy Numbers
Between the 1880s and the early 1900s, life expectancy rose by a quarter of a century. Medical experts at that time attributed the improved life expectancy to numerous medical breakthroughs. Note that in this post the phrase life expectancy refers to the CDC definition of the same which states that it is the “average number of years a group of infants can be expected to live if the group was to experience the death rates specific to each age group during the year of their birth.” Among the breakthroughs that enabled individuals to live longer during that period were vaccines as well as improved treatments for cardiovascular diseases and cancer.
Today, thousands of Americans are immunized each year. Medical practitioners are still positive that the number of people who die per year from cancer and heart problems is decreasing. Yet statistics still show that life expectancy is moving downward.
According to the NCHS, the life expectancy for infants in 2014 was, on average, 78.9 years. That number fell to 78.6 years in 2016. Both men and women experienced the drop in life expectancy. Women’s fell to 81.1 years whereas men’s landed at 76.1 years. The five-year gap between the genders marked an increase of 0.2 from 2014’s 4.8-year gap. The life expectancy for both men and women in the US during the former period remained below that of Canada. In that North American nation, the expectancy for men was at 79 years, higher than the US national average but still lower than the women national average of 84 years.
The expectancy was not different among races, but it did differ among the country’s states. States such as Minnesota and Hawaii had expectancies of over 80 years whereas others including West Virginia, Alabama and Mississippi were at 75 years and below.
Though a consecutive lower annual life expectancy does not indicate a trend, it is a bad indicator of the future. The current NCHS chief Bob Anderson told CNN, “It’s certainly concerning to see this two years in a row.” If the two-year drop indicates anything, it is that US citizens should prepare for the worst when it comes to this year’s mortality statistics.
The only way those statistics could change is if the public, the government, and all other stakeholders analyze the reasons behind the numbers and took measures to correct any correctable causes of mortality.
Why the Lower Life Expectancy?
When the CDC says fewer people in the States are dying of cancer and heart disease, the question remains, what is causing the adverse shift in life expectancy? These are some of the reasons behind the increased mortality rates among people between their 20s and 50s.
Increased overdoses. The opioid epidemic has had its hooks in the US population for about a decade now, and was one of the leading causes of death among American youth in 2016. The increased number of opioid- and drug-related deaths in the country is so high that it exceeds the number of people not dying from stroke and heart disease yearly when superimposed with it.
Suicide. Next to opiate overdose, suicide has been one of the fastest-growing causes of death among US students. Increased stress, depression, and the isolation that comes with the ingress of social media are some of the factors that contribute to increased suicides in America. Homicides are also another reason why mortality rates in the country have risen over the years.
Unintentional injury. These represent the unpreventable forces influencing mortality rates in the country. Infant diseases, infant injury as well as unforeseeable accidents are all examples of unintentional injury.
Alzheimer’s disease. This condition kills almost as many people combined as minor types of cancers.
Cardiovascular disease and cancer. These are among the top ten killer diseases in the US. The number of people who died from this condition has decreased compared to those that died in the former decade. However, the rate of reduction in the number of deaths has been decreasing over the past five years.
Of course, there are many other reasons why the US has recorded high death rates in recent times. Accidents and substance abuse represent just two more reasons for this trend.
Sure, there are some causes of mortality that cannot be anticipated. However, why should people continue dying from conditions that can not only be prevented but also managed? Why should cardiovascular disease still be a major contributor to the death rate in a country full of civilly educated individuals? Preventing heart disease is all about eating healthily and staying active. Sounds easy enough to do, doesn’t it? If we cannot focus on issues as complex as depression and its link to opioid abuse and suicide when we want to lengthen life expectancy, we should place our focus on matters that we can control – like healthy dieting and exercise.
Article exclusively provided for AskTheDoctor.com by Victor Silver