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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,966
April 25, 2019
Life Expectancy Dropping in America
By Mike McManus

America's life expectancy has declined for the past three years. This is the longest sustained decline in expected life span at birth in a century.

The only comparable period of such a plunge is 1915-1918, when World War I killed 53,000 American soldiers and a pandemic at home killed 675,000 Americans.

A century ago the average life expectancy at birth in the United States was only 39 years. In 2017, longevity had jumped to 78.6 years. However, that figure is a drop from 2014 when it was 78.9. More than 2.8 million deaths occurred in America in 2017, an increase of about 70,000 from the previous year.

After decades of innovations in medicine pioneered by Americans, our expected life span is substantially below a dozen other nations with advanced economies. A Japanese child born in 2017 can expect to live to 84.4 years - almost 6 years longer than an American baby!

These nations have a life expectancy between 82 and 84 years: Switzerland, Australia, Ireland, Sweden, France, Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom and Germany - plus Japan, of course. All are far ahead of the dismal 78.6 rate of the U.S.

Why is the life expectancy of America so low and dropping?

Robert Redfield, Director of the Center for Disease Control, says "Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdoses and suicide. We are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, in conditions that are preventable."

Death rates for cancer actually fell by 2.1% while heart disease and kidney disease did not change significantly.

However, drug overdoses killed 70,237 in 2017 - a 10% increase from 63,632 a year earlier. The opioid epidemic took a growing toll. Since 1999, the number of drug overdose deaths has more than quadrupled. Deaths attributed to synthetic opioids were nearly six times higher in 2017 than in 1999.

Drug overdose deaths increased across all age groups, with the highest rate occurring in adults aged 35-44 (39 per 100,000) - people supposedly in their prime. Drug overdose deaths were lowest among adults aged 65 and older, (6.9 per 100,000).

There was a particularly sharp increase in drug overdose deaths caused by synthetic opioids. In just one year from 2016 to 2017, deaths due to fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and tramadol - shot up 45% in that year.

These drugs are sold on the street.

Suicide rates rose 33% from 1999 through 2017. They tripled among girls aged 10-14. They also nearly doubled among boys of that age. While suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., in 2016 it was the second leading cause of death for those aged 10-34.

Why are young teens and young adults killing themselves?

Studies suggest that "despair deaths" such as suicide, drugs and alcoholism are a big part of the problem. But so is obesity, poverty and social isolation. In 2015 weight problems accounted for more than 10 percent of all deaths, according to Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.

By contrast, weight problems account for only 7 percent of U.K. deaths and 3 percent in Japan. Why?

One important factor is that government provides far more help in Europe and Japan than in the U.S. One paper published recently estimated that if the U.S. had a safety net as generous as European countries, Americans would live four years longer.

Deaths from heart disease declined by 50% in the U.S. overall since 1980, but southern states have not improved much. Their medical safety net is much weaker than that of the urban north, for example.

Colorado has very low death rates for heart disease - one of the lowest in the world. And its rate for diabetes is also very low. By contrast, in West Virginia, things are getting worse.

What can be done to turn these trends around?

Churches could do a much better job in not only preaching against the dangers of alcohol, smoking and drugs - but also creating a strong sense of community in which every church member feels cherished.

Second, it is essential to pass national legislation to regulate the sales of guns. One reason suicide rates are higher in rural areas is that more homes have guns than in urban areas.

There were 15,000 gun homicides and 23,000 gun suicides. But many states passed a requirement to conduct a background check on purchasers of guns that blocked the sales to 3 million dangerous people. Congress should require background checks for all sales.

Let's make America more safe and supportive of people.


Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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