Progress Still Needed Despite U.S. Life Expectancy Rise

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The U.S. life expectancy rise signals positive impact of health policies. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Owen Crann, Contributing Writer

Recently, the National Center for Health Statistics reported that the average life expectancy for Americans increased in 2018 for the first time in four years, ending an alarming trend of annual decreases since 2014. Prior to 2015, the last time that the United States had experienced a decline in life expectancy was in 1993, during the AIDS epidemic. To put the rarity of this recent trend in even greater context, the last prolonged stagnation of the life expectancy in this country occurred during the 1960s.

There were several drivers of this increase in life expectancy, the most significant of which was a decline in the number of cancer-related deaths. There was a 2.2% drop in the number of deaths due to cancer from 2017 to 2018, which, according to Rebecca Siegel of the American Cancer Society, represents the single largest yearly decline in the cancer mortality rate since records have been kept on the matter. The main reason for this drop in cancer-related deaths was a decline in the number of deaths from lung cancer, which makes sense as the smoking rate continues to decrease in this country.

Another important driver of the increase in life expectancy was a drop in the number of drug-related deaths, specifically opioid-related deaths. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there was a 4.1% decline in the number of fatalities from drug overdoses from 2017 to 2018. A decline in the number of deaths from prescription opioids was the main reason for the drop in the overall drug mortality rate.

Although this recent news surely represents a positive development for American society, as the average life expectancy represents the most basic measurement that can be used to determine the overall health of a society, there is still ample reason to be concerned about the overall well-being of Americans. First of all, the United States continues to lag behind other developed countries in this metric and, even more worryingly, trails much poorer countries in this regard. For instance, the average life expectancies in both Costa Rica and Slovenia are substantially greater than that of the United States.

Furthermore, this increase in life expectancy could prove to be a one-off occurrence for several reasons. To begin, there is no evidence that the opioid crisis has definitively subsided. Although the decline in opioid-related deaths certainly represents a positive sign that the opioid crisis could be abating, according to Robert Anderson of the CDC, it is too soon to determine “whether (this country has) reached a turning point” in combating the opioid crisis. Dr. Holly Hedegaard, the individual who authored the CDC report about the decline in drug-related deaths, expressed a similar sentiment when speaking to U.S. News & World Report. According to Dr. Hedegaard, “A one-year change (is not) enough (evidence) to really say that (this country) is over the hump” in regards to the opioid crisis.

Moreover, there are several worrying trends concerning substance abuse in the United States that need to be reversed if life expectancy is to continue increasing. For example, the number of fentanyl-related deaths increased by 10% from 2017 to 2018. In addition, the number of deaths involving cocaine more than tripled from 2012 to 2018 and increased year-to-year at a rate of 27%.

If those statistics were not troubling enough, according to the CDC, the number of alcohol-related deaths doubled between 1999 and 2017. All of those numbers reveal this country is experiencing more substance abuse crises than just the often talked-about opioid crisis.

Another crisis that could contribute to future declines in life expectancy if not dealt with properly is the suicide crisis, particularly among adolescents. According to a CDC report, the suicide rate among teens and those in their early twenties skyrocketed by 56% between 2007 and 2017. Furthermore, the number of suicide attempts by young people quadrupled from 2011 to 2017.

According to Jean M. Twenge, a research psychologist at San Diego State University, this country “is in the middle of a full-blown mental health crisis for adolescents and young adults.” Although much has been reported about the health crisis among middle-aged white Americans, and rightly so, there is currently a health crisis among young Americans as well, as evidenced by those disturbing statistics.

In an age when the average life expectancy in many countries is increasing at a rapid pace, the United States has been left behind. Although the increase from 2017 to 2018 is certainly good news, it represents a modest increase, at best, and still trails the life expectancy just four years prior. From 1968 to 2010, the average life expectancy in the United States increased by an average of approximately two years per decade, yet from 2010 to 2018, it did not increase at all, suggesting that this country is struggling with serious societal problems that must be addressed if we are to make any meaningful progress as a nation.

Owen Crann, GSB ’23, is a finance major from Morristown, N.J.