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HEALTH/SCI/TECH

US Life Expectancy Declines In Trend Not Seen Since A Century Ago

Lost in the crowd at Occupy Wall Street Union Square, Manhattan
Lost in the crowd at Occupy Wall Street Union Square, Manhattan. (Photo: Timothy Krause)

“The indicators already show that we’re falling apart. America’s life expectancy has declined for the last three years in a row, the first time in a hundred years.”

The U.S. is undergoing its longest sustained decline in life expectancy since World War I and the flu pandemic of 1918 which infected about 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population at the time.

The U.S. is an outlier in the statistic. In most developed countries, life expectancy has steadily improved. World War I and the devastating global flu pandemic were behind the last decline from 1915-1918, but the period of 2015-2018 saw a decline despite GDP growth and material signifiers of a prosperous economy. The alarming and mysterious trend indicates deep flaws in American society, and experts have pointed to mental health as a contributing factor.

What is Causing US Life Expectancy to Go Down?

According to a recent study by the U.S. News & World Report and the Aetna Foundation, poor mental health shortens life expectancy almost as much as diabetes and smoking. One of the longest running and most respected public research projects in America, the General Social Survey, shows Americans reporting themselves to be increasingly miserable since peak happiness in the 1990’s. The World Happiness Report pegs Americans as six percent lower in overall life satisfaction in 2018 than they were in 2007.

Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang describes America’s declining life expectancy rate as evidence of the need for his signature “Freedom Dividend” initiative for a universal basic income:

“The indicators already show that we’re falling apart. America’s life expectancy has declined for the last three years in a row, the first time in a hundred years, because of surges in suicides and drug overdoses.”

The fact-checking website Politifact reviewed Yang’s claim as “mostly true”, saying:

“Yang’s claim is based on the most recent figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the three years since 2014 for which data are available, life expectancy dropped in 2015, stayed the same in 2016 and dropped in 2017. That pattern has not been seen in 100 years. The CDC says suicides and drug overdoses, which showed major growth, as two of the three main factors in the decline.”

The third factor the CDC listed was liver disease, which the CDC says “may be caused by both biological and behavioral factors, including hepatitis C or hepatitis B infection and excessive alcohol consumption.”

Who’s to Blame?

Julian Castro, another 2020 Democratic candidate, has commented on the alarming statistic. Since the trend began in 2015, critics have pointed to the Obama administration in allowing life expectancy to decline. Castro served as the Obama administration’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and rejects claims that policies by the former President led to the statistic:

“I wouldn’t peg that on any one administration. I would say that it highlights the need for us to make investments in people ― in the wellbeing of our American community if we want to go in a positive direction in the years to come.”

Declining life expectancy is a tangible statistic behind the populist rage that has defined American politics in the last few years. Policymakers and public health experts must work together to understand this anomalous trend and enact policies to reverse it.

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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1 Comment

  1. Erik Kengaard April 11, 2019

    Things have been going downhill for Americans since the late 1960s – unaffordable rent, unaffordable homes, unaffordable college, stagnant wages, . . . . the 1970s marked the end of a century of life getting ever better. What happened?

    Reply

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