Better technology, improved healthcare, and few deaths in war are supposed to lead to ever-increasing life expectancy, but that’s not the case in the U.S.
After rising for the latter latter half of the 20th century and the first part of the new millennia, life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen for the last three years, driven by more deaths among those in middle age.
Between 2010 and 2017, more Americans succumbed to drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicide, and organ system diseases, such as hypertension and diabetes, according to a new report published in JAMA.
“There has been an increase in death rates among working age American. This is an emergent crisis. And it is a uniquely American problem since it is not seen in other countries. Something about life in America is responsible.”
And the issue isn’t evenly spread across the states. Woolf and his coauthor found faster rising rates of middle-age mortality in northern New England and the Ohio Valley, both of which have been hit hard by the opioid crisis.
Economic hardship and the resulting despair may be to blame in those regions, Woolf suggested:
“While it’s a little difficult to place the blame on despair directly, the living conditions causing despair are leading to other problems. For example if you live in an economically distressed community where income is flat and it’s hard to find jobs, that can lead to chronic stress, which is harmful to health.”
As for why the issue seems to be uniquely American, Woolf pointed to stronger social safety nets in other developed countries.
Based on the data, life expectancy had increased by almost 10 years over the course of nearly 6 decades – from 69.9 years to 78.9 years – but had been declining since 2014.
The largest relative increases in midlife mortality rates occurred in New Hampshire, 23.3%, West Virginia, 23.0%, Ohio, 21.6%, Maine, 20.7%, Vermont, 19.9%, Indiana, 14,8% and Kentucky, 14.7%. Life expectancy actually increased or plateaued in some Western states, the researchers reported.