Updated: Dec 12, 2018
Life expectancy is declining in high-income countries worldwide. On average, Americans can now expect to live 78.6 years, a statistically significant drop of 0.1 year, according to a 2016 report published by the National Center for Health Statistics. Women can now expect to live a full five years longer than men: 81.1 years vs. 76.1 years. In comparison, in the year 1900, the average life expectancy for Americans was 45 years.
The last time the agency recorded a multiyear drop was in 1962 and 1963.
"I still don't think you can call it a trend, because you really need more than two data points to call something a trend," said Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But it's certainly concerning to see this two years in a row."
"We have data for almost half of 2017 at this point. It's still quite provisional, but it suggests that we're in for another increase" in drug-related deaths, he said. "If we're not careful, we could end up with declining life expectancy for three years in a row, which we haven't seen since the Spanish flu, 100 years ago" according to Anderson.
"It just keeps going up and up and appears to be accelerating," Anderson said.
Life expectancy is a measure of the health and well-being of a population. Widespread or sustained declines in life expectancy may signal problems in a nation’s social and economic conditions or in the provision or quality of its healthcare services.
“This level of decline hasn’t occurred in decades, and the size of these most recent declines were larger than prior declines,” said Jessica Ho of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
A particularly severe influenza season drove declines outside the U.S. in 2014-2015, primarily among adults age 65 and older. In addition to flu and pneumonia, the main causes of death in the other affluent countries studied were associated with an aging population, i.e., the baby boomer bulge moving into their senior years.
Many countries reversed their life-expectancy decline in the 2015-2016 period, but in the U.S. and the UK, the declines continue.
Another study suggests, however, that in the U.S., the source of reduced life-expectancy was concentrated at younger ages, particularly deaths among those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s and largely driven by increases in drug-overdose deaths, suicide, and lifestyle related deaths, i.e., alcoholism, smoking, mental health issues or what’s called, “death by despair”.
“We make a mistake if we focus only on the drug problem, which is just the tip of the iceberg,” said lead author of a second study, Dr. Steven H. Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
"Our study found rising midlife death rates from dozens of diseases of the heart, lungs, digestive systems and other organs. It even found rising death rates during pregnancy and early childhood," Woolf said.
If we don't get the mental health of the nation in better shape life expectancy will continue to decrease as our mental health deeply impacts all other aspects of our life.