American Life Expectancy Continues to Drop: Examining 5 Potential Causes
By Jess Scherman on 08/09/2018
The most recent mortality report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed 2016 as the second consecutive year in which life expectancy has declined in the United States.1 The last time the U.S. saw two consecutive years of declining life expectancy was in 1962 and 1963, when many lives were taken by influenza. In fact, the last time average life expectancy dipped at all before 2015 was in 1993, at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
In an age in which our medical and technological capabilities are more advanced than ever, one would expect just the opposite to be happening—after years upon years of life expectancy increasing in America, why the sudden shift?
Join us as we dig into the facts surrounding the decreased life expectancy in America, including some probable causes and what is being done to address them.
5 Possible reasons Americans are dying younger
The CDC’s own chief of mortality statistics has urged that we take this sudden downward trend extremely seriously, pointing out the alarming reality that other developed countries are not experiencing similar trends. It’s true that the American average life expectancy of 78.7 years is lower than that of other developed nations.1
For example, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)—a group of developed countries that includes Canada, Germany, Mexico, France, Japan and the U.K.—boasts an average life expectancy of 80.3 years, 1.5 years higher than that of the U.S.
While it's obvious life expectancy can be influenced by thousands of factors, and research and discussion as to what’s driving the change is ongoing, the following five factors stand out as potential negative influences on life expectancy in the United States when compared to OECD nations.
From 2015 to 2016, the death rate from drug overdoses climbed by an alarming 21 percent—and more than 63,000 Americans died from overdose in 2016 alone.2 That means over a hundred people are dying every day from overdose—and a large percentage of these deaths stem from opioids. The CDC additionally found that deaths from fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids more than doubled from 2015 to 2016, while overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids rose at a moderate rate.
That being said, many believe that the actual number of opioid-related deaths could be undercounted, which would make the opioid epidemic more deadly than the AIDS epidemic at its height. All data currently compiled for the CDC’s 2017 report indicates that we will see yet another increase in drug-related deaths. If this causes life expectancy to decrease yet again, it will be the first three-year decline since the Spanish Flu ravaged the country 100 years ago.
While the large increase in opioid-related deaths of late is certainly alarming, the overall decline in life expectancy in the U.S. is not explained by opioids alone. Alcohol abuse may play a large role as well—in fact, a 2015 CDC report found that an average of six Americans die each day from alcohol poisoning.3
The CDC considers alcohol the third-leading preventable cause of death in the United States, surpassed only by tobacco use and poor diet / physical inactivity. Alcohol-induced causes of death include alcohol poisoning and cirrhosis. Alcohol abuse can also be a contributing factor in up to 60 different diseases and injuries, ranging from cancer to heart disease.
The negative health impacts of alcohol aren’t just limited to disease or overconsumption—it should be noted that the federal data on alcohol-related deaths excludes deaths from drunk driving, other accidents and homicides committed under the influence of the substance.
It’s true that America is seeing a frightening increase in deaths related to substance abuse, but another contributor to the country’s shift in average life expectancy is what some experts refer to as “despair.” That is to suggest that an overall decline in the nation’s emotional well-being can be significant enough to impact the average length of life.
Consider, for example, the fact that the number of suicide-related deaths in the U.S. has soared to a 30-year high, with rates increasing among all age groups except for older adults. In light of these surges, the nation’s suicide rate has been amended to include 13 per every 100,000 people. This is the highest rate since 1986.
According to the most recent federal data from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), suicide claims the lives of nearly 45,000 people annually. While suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death overall, it is the second-leading cause of death among individuals aged 10 to 34 and the fourth-leading cause among individuals aged 35 to 54.4
As is often discussed by politicians and on the news of late, gun violence continues to take more and more lives each year in America. The most recent CDC data reveals that firearm-related deaths rose for the second straight year in 2016. But in addition to gun violence, violent death in general is becoming increasingly prevalent in the U.S.
In fact, it’s estimated that the nation’s murder rate is rising at its fastest pace since the 1970s, when the crime rate skyrocketed after judges and legislatures rolled back criminal penalties. This time, however, police officials and criminologists report feeling puzzled by the upsurge.
But amidst their puzzlement is a definite sense of urgency to pinpoint the origin of this alarming trend. “A 20 percent increase in homicides over the past two years is not trivial,” one criminologist told The New York Times. “We’ve got what looks like a serious problem here.”
The prevalence of diabetes in the U.S. has virtually exploded over the past 20 years, with nearly 30 million Americans currently living with the disease.5 That’s more than three times the number that was documented in the early 1990s. That’s only part of the problem—the CDC reports that there are currently another 84.1 million Americans living with prediabetes–a condition in which blood sugar is high, but not high enough to be type 2 diabetes.
It should also be noted that researchers have long accepted that diabetes is an underreported cause of death. Those with diabetes often have other health conditions that can contribute to a shortened length of life, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity.
While diabetes is most commonly listed as the seventh-most prevalent cause of death in the country, research suggests it’s likely closer to the third-leading cause, following only cancer and heart disease. Diabetes can be managed through physical activity, diet and the necessary use of insulin or other medications to control blood-sugar levels, but a majority of the more than one-third of U.S. adults who have prediabetes don’t know they have it.
When not properly treated, people with diabetes experience increased risk of serious health complications. These can include premature death, vision loss, heart disease, stroke, kidney failure and more.
How can we preserve Americans’ health and well-being?
There’s a lot of not-so-pleasant statistical factors that may be driving Americans’ decline in life expectancy. But there is some good news—in many ways, these factors are somewhat under our control and can be prevented or blunted with proper physical and mental healthcare.
If you’re interested in the general health trends relating to today’s American communities, you may find yourself eager to make a difference. Many in the U.S. seek guidance when it comes to healthy living and illness prevention, which is where community health workers can make a huge impact.
From advocating for the marginalized in need of proper healthcare to educating community members about healthy living or the healthcare system itself, pursuing a path in community health could be an impassioned way for you to use your career to make a difference in the lives of others. Learn more about this role by checking out our article, “6 Invaluable Ways Community Health Workers Impact Our Lives.”
1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Mortality in the United States, 2016 [information accessed July 10, 2018] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db293.pdf
2Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999-2016 [information accessed July 10, 2018] https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db294.htm
3Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Vital Signs, Alcohol Poisoning Deaths [information accessed July 10, 2018] https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0106-alcohol-poisoning.html
4National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health, Suicide Statistics [Information accessed July 10, 2018] https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide
5Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Long-term Trends in Diabetes, April 2017 [information accessed July 10, 2018] https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/statistics/slides/long_term_trends.pdf