The four-day Thanksgiving weekend may not be the best time to point this out. But a study looking at six decades of data in the United States reports that overall life expectancy has declined in each of the past three years.
This is a slap in the country’s face, given that we spend more on health care than anywhere else in the world. Plus, the many advances made in treating deadly diseases and medical conditions should mean that, on average, we’re living longer than we used to.
The problem is, it’s not the elderly who are dying in greater numbers. It’s working-age people between 25 and 64.
The report, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, listed a number of factors in our declining life span.
Among the most sinister were a rapidly rising level of drug addiction, specifically to opioids, over the last two decades, and prior research that indicated a “sea of despair” among many Americans with only a high school education or less.
Rising rates of suicide and deaths from alcohol-related liver diseases also played a role. But all these things — opioids, despair, suicide and alcohol — can only kill a small percentage of the population. Other things must be at work, affecting a far larger number of people.
“Obesity is a significant part of the story,” said a story in The Washington Post. “The average woman in the United States today weighs as much as the average man half a century ago, and men now weigh about 30 pounds more. Most people in the United States are overweight — an estimated 71.6 percent of the population age 20 and older,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A warning signal that this trend may continue is provided by the fact that 19 percent of Americans between the ages of 2 and 19 are considered obese.
It’s alarming when a rising percentage of Americans who literally are in the prime of their lives are dying. There’s no way the country’s life expectancy should be decreasing, and the study is telling us that we need to eat a little less and exercise a little more. But it’s also telling us that other things need attention.
For example, our consumer-oriented culture. While consumption is a key driver in the broader economy, there are downsides. One of those is that a lot of people are impulse buyers. If they see something they want, they purchase it, sometimes whether or not they can afford it. After a while, money becomes a problem when the bills are due. This may be a contributor to the “sea of despair” among lesser-educated people, who tend to earn less money.
Another likely factor, not mentioned specifically in the Post’s story, are rising levels of loneliness. This has to be an element in that sea of despair. It seems that a lot of people can’t find someone with whom to share their life. Perhaps improvements in that area, along with finances and obesity, could fix our life-span problem.