When we look at the things we try to avoid in life, you would hope that escaping premature death would be top of the list. After all, it speaks to our basic human drive for survival. Yet, in our modern world, preventable risks posed by smoking, unhealthy diets and drug use contribute mightily to diseases and, ultimately, premature death. These risk factors have led to a decrease in life expectancy.
There is now at least some reason for hope. As recently reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for the first time since 2014, death rates in the U.S. declined, and life expectancy showed a modest uptick. According to its findings, life expectancy at birth in 2018 was 78.7 years, which is 0.1 year longer than the previous year. It may not seem like much, but in a nation of approximately 350 million people, the upturn in longevity reflects improvements in the lives of many Americans.
The recent progress was driven by decreases in death rates from six of the 10 leading causes of death. As reported by NPR, in a continuation of an ongoing downward trend since the 1990s, there was a 2.2% decrease in cancer deaths. The numbers also show a 2.8% fall in deaths from unintentional injuries, which include drug overdoses. According to Kathryn McHugh, a psychologist at McLean Psychiatric Hospital and Harvard University, this represents the first positive change seen in a 20-year-long trend of drug overdose deaths. “I think these numbers suggest that some positive news is starting to come out of the many efforts to try to stem the tide on overdoses,” McHugh tells NPR.
Some health experts advise receiving the news, which is based on a single year-to-year change, with cautious optimism. Despite the decline in overdose deaths, the government’s National Center for Health Statistics shows more than 67,000 people still died from drug overdoses in 2018. During this same one-year period, the U.S. also saw an increase in suicide and flu death rates.
It was also noted that the use of a combination of drugs has increased over time, which experts see as a disturbing trend that could lead to what they refer to as the “fourth wave of the opioid crisis.” According to the new report, the rate of deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl (excluding methadone) increased by 10% between 2017 and 2018. In addition, from 2012 to 2018, death rates involving cocaine increased threefold.
At the same time, a report by the Commonwealth Fund found that Americans are twice as likely than people living in most other wealthy countries to be hospitalized for hypertension or diabetes, two diseases associated with obesity.
As noted by Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, in an NBC report, the fact that almost 40% of Americans are obese contributes to the U.S. falling behind other countries.
Compared to other wealthy countries such as Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, the U.S. continues to trail behind when it comes to life expectancy. This, it is feared, illustrates a larger societal problem. The Commonwealth Fund report also found that despite living shorter lives, Americans spend nearly two times more on health care than any other high-income country.
“Policymakers must recognize that the decisions they’re making about jobs, education and infrastructure investments are health policies and have consequences not only to pocketbooks but to life expectancy,” Woolf tells NBC News.
“There’s a large amount of social, economic, spiritual despair in this country,” Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of medicine and an addiction researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, tells NPR. He goes on to say that addressing that despair will be key to preventing more people from turning to drugs in the first place.
A glimmer of hope in the statistics can be found in the sharp decline in the number of cigarette smokers in the past four decades and its positive impact on smoking-related deaths — including cancer and respiratory disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, quitting smoking before turning 40 reduces a person’s risk of dying from smoking-related disease by about 90%. Advances in cancer treatments and early screening are also positive influences on U.S. life expectancy.
In the end, the fact that American infants are projected to live longer than they would have in 2017 is a victory, the NBC News report notes.
“People should be encouraged but still understand that there is something fundamentally wrong with our health pattern in the U.S.,” Woolf concludes. “When you look at this longer-term trend over the past few decades, it’s clear that we need to make some fundamental changes in the way we approach life in America if we’re going to sustain this decrease.”
• Write to Chuck Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about health and fitness.