We live in an era of unprecedented medical advances, in a country that sets the standard for medical research and innovation. At least, that’s what the evidence would suggest. But the sad reality for many Americans is revealed in a story we just read from USA Today: in spite of all those medical advances, we’re not living longer. American life expectancy continues to decline, based on CDC statistics from 2021.
This story from USA Today reporter Karen Weintraub is a sobering reminder that the promise of a longer life, something Americans have taken for granted for decades, is a fragile thing. Life expectancy can be impacted by everything from a pandemic to a drug overdose crisis to a medical system that continues to deny basic health coverage to tens of millions. Moreover, articles like this should also serve as a wake-up call for each of us not to take our own health for granted. It’s an important reminder as we start the New Year.
Erasing 25-Plus Years of Medical Advances
Writing in USA Today. Weintraub begins, “Average American life expectancy fell from 77 to 76.4 years last year, bringing U.S. figures back to where they were in 1996, according to federal data released [recently].”
The consequence? According to Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University (who was not involved with the study), this means that “all the medical advances over the past quarter century have been erased.”
He adds, “Though the rate of decline in life expectancy wasn’t as dramatic as in 2020, the fall-off in 2021 was actually worse because it came on top of that year’s 17 percent decline.”
In her article, Weintraub breaks the statistics down further, explaining, “For American men, life expectancy fell by more than eight months, and for women the loss was about seven months, the study found. Life expectancy, which is actually a measure of death rates, dropped in every age category over age 1.”
Other Western Countries are Improving – but Not the U.S.
What makes these figures arguably worse is that the decline has occurred at the same time that other wealthy countries saw a rebound after the first year of the pandemic.
Woolf cites several factors for why this could be the case, including low COVID-19 vaccination rates and the generally poor health of Americans. (We would add that other industrialized nations do a far better job of covering their citizens’ medical needs.) “The fact that the United States in 2020 and 2021 did so much worse than other countries is a warning sign that this health disadvantage that America has had for many years is really getting pretty bad,” he said.
Most Causes of Death Got Worse in 2021
Sadly, the main causes of death for Americans have remained largely the same between 2020 and 2021, “led by heart disease, cancer and COVID-19, all three of which occurred more often last year,” Weintraub writes.
She adds, “Eight of the top 10 causes of death saw statistically significant increases in 2021 over 2020, including unintentional injury and stroke. Only Alzheimer’s disease and chronic lower respiratory diseases declined among the leading causes of death.”
The death rates for other diseases rose during the pandemic, such as chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, which are often alcohol-related. Drug overdoses were also higher. Woolf notes that people may have turned to alcohol and drugs to alleviate their economic, social, and other stresses.
Death Rate Increasing at Younger Ages
But for Woolf, the most disturbing trend was the drop in life expectancy for people in middle age, since they should be in the prime of their working years. “This trend began a decade before the pandemic, but COVID-19 contributed,” he said, “particularly for people of color. A 40-year-old with multiple health problems was more likely to die of COVID-19 than someone of the same age in better health; in essence, poor health is making the American population look older than it is.”
But most worrying of all, Woolf says that it’s “not clear” why deaths are increasing among younger adults and children, since these had already been declining before the pandemic.
Racial Disparities Still Exist but are Diminishing
Weintraub writes, “The race gap reversed somewhat in 2021 as white people lost more ground than people of color, though they still live longer on average. During the first year of the pandemic, Hispanic and Black populations experienced much higher death rates than their white counterparts. They were more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 and to die when they got infected.”
But in 2021, Woolf explains that the white population has done worse, overall. Death rates certainly increased among people of color – especially American Indians and Native Alaskans – but not as much as the 7 percent among white people. Data suggests that this could be because white people were more likely to avoid getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Turning the Tide Demands Far-Reaching Changes
As the article infers, solutions to the declining longevity rate are possible, but they will necessitate some drastic modifications to our pre-existing systems and social structures. They may also require political will, something that has been in short supply in the past few decades.
Weintraub writes, “Woolf said he sees a clear path toward improving America’s health, by providing what other wealthy nations provide: quality education, affordable housing, access to healthy food, reduced income inequality and greater regulation of industries that pollute or provide potentially dangerous products such as cars or guns.”
“We need to make a decision as to whether we’re just going to accept those losses and accept that Americans are going to be less healthy than people (in other wealthy countries) and live much shorter lives or we need to do something about it,” Woolf says. “We don’t lack solutions. We lack political will.”
The good news? Woolf doesn’t believe that it will take 25 years for Americans to rebound after the losses of the last two years. Still, he remains uneasy. “The fact that we took a hit like that and were pushed that far back in time while other countries did not is very concerning,” he warns.
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(originally reported at www.usatoday.com)