Kind of an unpleasant thought…but unfortunately, it seems to be.
Americans for 100 years have enjoyed an unprecedented run at living longer and healthier lives. Cleaner air and water, public sanitation, refrigeration, safer food, advances in trauma care, understanding many diseases which have yielded life-saving treatments and in addition, new vaccines and drugs have all added years to the average American’s lifespan.
Now, slowly, those gains are being lost.
Over the past three years (2015-2017 and 2018 data is pending) we have seen a sustained decline in the expected life expectancy of an American at birth. Not since the years of 1915-1918 which included World War I and the Spanish influenza pandemic has the United States experienced a sustained decline in the life expectancy of its citizens. The average life expectancy for an American peaked in 2014 at 78.8 years; with men living 76.4 years and women at 81.2 years. In 2017, men are living on average years 76.1 and women living 81.1 years. This drop in overall survival is despite the fact that death from cancer in the United States continues to decrease at a rate of 2-3% per year.
Data analysis suggests the decline is due to three issues:
1) Cardiovascular disease was and is the most common cause of death and has steadily dropped. However, despite vastly improved medical treatments and education on how to reduce risks including a huge drop in tobacco use over the past 60 years, the decreases in cardiovascular related deaths (heart attack, stroke, kidney disease) we have witnessed have plateaued. Continued progress at reducing the existence of these cardiovascular diseases seems to have stalled. This is despite the advancements in cholesterol lowering drugs, all sorts of heart surgery procedures and cardiology interventions, etc.
Experts are concluding from all of this that a profound increase in obesity in the United States over the past 60 years with all of its downstream consequences is blunting our life expectancy. Obesity (BMI 30+) has gone from 12% in 1960 to 40% in 2017 and average daily caloric intake by Americans is at an all time high.
2) Mortality rate from opioid overdose has tripled since 1999. Most of this has been due to abuse of prescriptions pain medications but more recently it is due to the flood of Fentanyl, a synthetic ultra-potent opioid, into the United States.
3) Suicide rates have increased 33% since 1999. This increase has almost exclusively occurred in non-urban locations and populations.
While this is information is very concerning if not depressing, these three problems can be addressed and do not have to define our fate. It is up to our own society to recognize that declining life expectancy is truly the biggest risk to our culture, our democracy, way of life and economic vitality; perhaps it even risks our national security. While other countries also have threatening health issues, none of them have contributed more to the improved health of the world than the United States. Accordingly, we Americans must immediately make an effort to reverse our course.
Inaction is an alternative that will present grim consequences that could manifest sooner than imagined.