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Declining Life Expectancy in America 'May Be the New Norm'

Syringes with heroin on table.
(Image: © Shutterstock)

After increasing for decades, U.S. life expectancy is on the decline, and a new study reveals some of the reasons behind the alarming trend.

The study, published today (Nov. 26) in the journal JAMA, found that the decline is mostly among "working-age" Americans, or those ages 25 to 64. In this group, the risk of  dying from drug abuse, suicide, hypertension and more than 30 other causes is increasing, the authors said.. 

The findings suggest that life expectancy in the U.S. is rapidly falling behind that of other wealthy countries. Indeed, the particular decline among working-age adults has not been seen in other countries, and is a "distinctly American phenomenon," said study co-author Steven H. Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

Related: Extending Life: 7 Ways to Live Past 100

"Death rates among working-age adults are on the rise," Woolf told Live Science. "We have known for years that the health of Americans is inferior to that of other wealthy nations, but our research shows that the decline in U.S. health relative to other countries began as early as the 1980s."

Concerning decline

The new study analyzed more than five decades of data on U.S. life expectancy. The results showed that, although U.S. life expectancy increased from 1959 to 2014, those figures plateaued in 2011 and began decreasing in 2014. 

The main culprits behind the decline appear to be drug overdose, alcohol abuse, suicide and a wide variety of organ system diseases among young and middle-age adults, especially individuals who did not complete high school. In particular, declines were seen among people living in some parts of New England, including Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont; as well as those living in the "Ohio Valley," which includes Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

These specific regions have been battered by the opioid epidemic and were among the most hard-hit victims of the collapse of the United States manufacturing sector. Indeed, more than one-third of excess deaths since 2010 have occured in the Ohio Valley states.

In contrast, life expectancy increased for those living along the Pacific coast from 2010 to 2017.

 "American phenomenon" 

Data from past decades showed that U.S. life expectancy began to lose pace with that of other countries starting in the 1980s, the authors said. 

"Historically this [period] was the beginning of the opioid epidemic, the shrinking of the middle class and the widening of income inequality," Woolf said.

Although many countries experienced economic shifts in the 1980s, Woolf suspects that the unique drop is U.S life expectancy may be due to lack of support for struggling families.

"In other countries, families that fall on hard times have programs and services available to cushion the blow. In America, people often have to fend for themselves," Woolf said. Absence of social services may also explain why the study found larger relative increases in mortality among women, "who have even fewer support systems, and more childcare responsibilities," he added.

Howard Koh of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study, described the findings as "the most exhaustive and detailed analysis of this topic to date."

In addition to weeding out the causes of death, Koh told Live Science that one solution to America's declining life expectancy may be "embracing the leading causes of life" — that is, paying more attention to how social connections and strong community networks impact wellbeing. "Other countries spend relatively more in terms of social services," Koh said. "Health is much more than what happens in a doctor's office. It starts where people live, learn, labor and pray."

The stakes are no less than the life span of the average American. Before a few years ago "it was largely assumed that life expectancy would always increase in the future," Koh said. "Now the nation risks a future in which declining life expectancy may be the new norm."

Originally published on Live Science. 

  • bob d
    should you include opioid deaths in trying to see how long the rest of us live?
    Reply
  • taraterm2
    bob d said:
    should you include opioid deaths in trying to see how long the rest of us live?
    no. That's not part of the normal life span experience. That's someone interrupting the pattern with abnormal activity. Life spans should be measured by how long you live ASSUMING you're taking good care of yourself and following the rules.And people who dont mess up are living pretty darn long.
    Reply
  • Suncat2000
    Declining life expectancy for Americans comes as no surprise: it's the outcome of stress. The crux of the issue is economic inequality, driven on one side by targeted social programs overly burdening and siphoning income off those who work for a living to redistribute it to those who don't. It's driven on the other side by the ultra-rich influencing legislation so only they avoid an inequitable progressive tax system, while leaving the rest of the working class to pay for government waste. Drug abuse, alcoholism, poor nutrition, and a failing public education system are symptoms of the problem: inequity aka poverty and fear of poverty. Improving people's economic standing will lower mind-busting stress, reduce unhealthy habits, and increase life expectancy.
    Reply
  • taraterm2
    It doesn't cost anything NOT to smoke, do drugs or drink. Condoms are cheap, legal and available at any drug store.

    In fact, if you don't smoke, don't drink or do drugs you'll save a lot of money, and thereby avoid a lot of stress. Granted when you are poor and have a lot of problems you are drawn to these outlets, but you dont have to be....smart people aren't. The rest reap what they sow.
    My cynicism comes from having ER docs in the family...at Johns Hopkins my nephew is so annoyed with people he wont go into private practice. Low income, minority, immigrant people come in with problems....like diabetes. Which they allowed to get very bad because they are 100 pounds overweight. Cant pay, no money. they get free treatment. They get free medication. free hospital stays. They get medicine to take home....some times they get a visiting nurse to come by a couple of times a week to help, advise or support them. 6 months later they are back at the ER...this time with maggots in their ulcers. Wash, rinse, repeat. 6 months later, they need an amputation. Some people just don't have the self realization or the self discipline they need to survive.
    Why do you think Bloomberg tried to tax soda? and go after the Big Gulp in NYC which offers an astounding 32 ounces of soda at one serving? cause he is a big meanie?? no, it was to try to get the poor off of a beverage thats killing them, a move many people see as being authoritarian but hey, education sure aint helping.

    PS I LOVE COKE and could drink a can every day with each meal. I resist and indulge on weekends, only one can per day...that stuff's truly poison.
    Reply
  • Sunfiremn
    The issues listed above aren't bad ideas but overall, what we all need to focus on is what has caused so many different issues in the US that are local issues here that aren't happening or not nearly as bad as they are in this country. Why are less businesses being created? Why are violence issues so much worse? Why are more people dying in car crashes. Why are so many working age people dying here vs other countries. We had high immigrant levels in the past and life expectancy wasn't falling? Why is it now? Why are more people renouncing citizenship than in the past? What is the public angry about that isn't getting fixed that needs to be fixed? Is it acceptable for wealthy companies and individuals to write off all taxes or should there be a minimum tax level? Why can't the US as a whole compete with other developed countries on transportation systems and why is it at risk of falling behind in some military technology? Why are average American wages and worker protections falling behind? Why are so many American jobs being outsourced and how should companies be penalized if their CEO to lowest paid employee average get too high?or when too many of their jobs are outsourced? When should we penalize and punish companies for not being pro American enough? Why has it been so difficult and so long a challenge to eliminate money being kept in tax Haven's? How can excess red tape be removed to get America moving again? Why are pay rates and wealth and quality of life disparities so great across the country? Should wealthier areas pay higher taxes to support issues that are failing? Should companies be required to employ workers in a minimum number of states to spread wealth around or the number of companies or jobs be limited to the percent of population that lives in those areas?

    The cause of these issues is one thing. If steps aren't taken in a timely matter to address inequality and improve access to a basic quality of life, and they remain out of reach for large areas of the country and a high percent of workers overall, eventually every citizen, both rich and poor, could pay a big price when America ultimately fails because of a lack of cooperation across the board. A country can only get so corrupt and disfunctional before it eventually fails.

    The other question is what countries we should be trading with. If we trade with non union countries, in theory, we should also be non union. If most workers in the us are non union, they can't afford to pay union labor costs for houses or other services. Those with union jobs should in theory be required to pay for other union products and services. A union worker for example should shop at a union grocery store and a non union worker should shop at a non union grocery store because a basic non union worker can't afford to pay union rates, and union workers should be willing to pay union rates for other union workers. Both systems are very different and mixing them together doesn't work correctly domestically or internationally and leads to situations we are now experiencing with excessive living costs and lack of affordable housing. There are advantages and disadvantages of both just like there are pros and cons to trading between free and non free countries. Should most trade or outsourcing be allowed or encouraged between free and non free countries? There are very serious concerns to consider both options but both questions also answer one very specific questions...what pay rates do we want our own workers to get paid. Lower prices for everything require lower wages for all workers overall. Trading with non free, non union, low wage countries means we all need to be willing to to make similar sacrifices at home. The biggest question of all is...are we willing as a societt to make all those sacrifices in this country or not, because we can't expect to eat all the cake and keep it at the same time. The world economy is much like a teeter totter. If we outsource all our jobs abroad, we can't expect to have good jobs at home. Are we willing to trade permanent jobs for gig economy jobs? An economy doesn't work right if some people are gig workers and others aren't. If companies can outsource a good portion of positions, why not outsource everyone all the way to the top. It doesn't take an extremely overpaid CEO or board of directors to buy back stock and outsource all jobs...most outsourcing companies overseas could run large companies here in the US at a fraction of the cost for pennies in the dollar! If the only thing we care about as American's is ultra cheap, then we don't need quality anything in America. Politicians could be outsourced too...there are people that would be happy to be politicians for minimum wage and would probably offer to do the job as a contractor with no health, retirement, days off, sick time or health, dental, or insurance of any kind. If we are obsessed with being cheap, we should all be willing to work as independent, non union contractors that get paid a base wage only, but we ALL need to be willing to be a part of the SAME system because once again, if some people are and most aren't, the overall economy won't work right. The major solution is that the economy needs to be correctly tied together again. Politicians, CEO's and corporate boards pay should be pre determined based on what they offer their employees. Taxes should be based on how much individuals and companies donate to the country. Our biggest problem is that nothing is correctly tied together anymore... we've allowed our economy to become an inconsistent hack job that doesn't work right and it isn't going to until we set better ground rules to accomplish what we are actually trying to accomplish.
    Reply
  • bob d
    my question is, why do you believe all of that, i could quote places to debate every thing you wrote? gloom and doom are choices, not facts, if you believe your questions, and they are questions not stated facts, i feel very sorry for you. just don't do anything stupid.
    Reply
  • taraterm2
    Sunfiremn said:
    The issues listed above aren't bad ideas but overall, what we all need to focus on is what has caused so many different issues in the US that are local issues here that aren't happening or not nearly as bad as they are in this country. Why are less businesses being created? Why are violence issues so much worse? Why are more people dying in car crashes. Why are so many working age people dying here vs other countries. We had high immigrant levels in the past and life expectancy wasn't falling? Why is it now? Why are more people renouncing citizenship than in the past? What is the public angry about that isn't getting fixed that needs to be fixed? Is it acceptable for wealthy companies and individuals to write off all taxes or should there be a minimum tax level? Why can't the US as a whole compete with other developed countries on transportation systems and why is it at risk of falling behind in some military technology? Why are average American wages and worker protections falling behind? Why are so many American jobs being outsourced and how should companies be penalized if their CEO to lowest paid employee average get too high?or when too many of their jobs are outsourced? When should we penalize and punish companies for not being pro American enough? Why has it been so difficult and so long a challenge to eliminate money being kept in tax Haven's? How can excess red tape be removed to get America moving again? Why are pay rates and wealth and quality of life disparities so great across the country? Should wealthier areas pay higher taxes to support issues that are failing? Should companies be required to employ workers in a minimum number of states to spread wealth around or the number of companies or jobs be limited to the percent of population that lives in those areas?

    The cause of these issues is one thing. If steps aren't taken in a timely matter to address inequality and improve access to a basic quality of life, and they remain out of reach for large areas of the country and a high percent of workers overall, eventually every citizen, both rich and poor, could pay a big price when America ultimately fails because of a lack of cooperation across the board. A country can only get so corrupt and disfunctional before it eventually fails.

    The other question is what countries we should be trading with. If we trade with non union countries, in theory, we should also be non union. If most workers in the us are non union, they can't afford to pay union labor costs for houses or other services. Those with union jobs should in theory be required to pay for other union products and services. A union worker for example should shop at a union grocery store and a non union worker should shop at a non union grocery store because a basic non union worker can't afford to pay union rates, and union workers should be willing to pay union rates for other union workers. Both systems are very different and mixing them together doesn't work correctly domestically or internationally and leads to situations we are now experiencing with excessive living costs and lack of affordable housing. There are advantages and disadvantages of both just like there are pros and cons to trading between free and non free countries. Should most trade or outsourcing be allowed or encouraged between free and non free countries? There are very serious concerns to consider both options but both questions also answer one very specific questions...what pay rates do we want our own workers to get paid. Lower prices for everything require lower wages for all workers overall. Trading with non free, non union, low wage countries means we all need to be willing to to make similar sacrifices at home. The biggest question of all is...are we willing as a societt to make all those sacrifices in this country or not, because we can't expect to eat all the cake and keep it at the same time. The world economy is much like a teeter totter. If we outsource all our jobs abroad, we can't expect to have good jobs at home. Are we willing to trade permanent jobs for gig economy jobs? An economy doesn't work right if some people are gig workers and others aren't. If companies can outsource a good portion of positions, why not outsource everyone all the way to the top. It doesn't take an extremely overpaid CEO or board of directors to buy back stock and outsource all jobs...most outsourcing companies overseas could run large companies here in the US at a fraction of the cost for pennies in the dollar! If the only thing we care about as American's is ultra cheap, then we don't need quality anything in America. Politicians could be outsourced too...there are people that would be happy to be politicians for minimum wage and would probably offer to do the job as a contractor with no health, retirement, days off, sick time or health, dental, or insurance of any kind. If we are obsessed with being cheap, we should all be willing to work as independent, non union contractors that get paid a base wage only, but we ALL need to be willing to be a part of the SAME system because once again, if some people are and most aren't, the overall economy won't work right. The major solution is that the economy needs to be correctly tied together again. Politicians, CEO's and corporate boards pay should be pre determined based on what they offer their employees. Taxes should be based on how much individuals and companies donate to the country. Our biggest problem is that nothing is correctly tied together anymore... we've allowed our economy to become an inconsistent hack job that doesn't work right and it isn't going to until we set better ground rules to accomplish what we are actually trying to accomplish.
    Reply
  • taraterm2
    yeah yeah I get it, life's tough. But the rules of survival remain the same. Don't do drugs, drink, smoke, over eat, gamble if you cant afford it or have sex with infected strangers. You'll be well again of the game.
    Reply
  • SCI-CORE
    Sunfiremn said:
    The issues listed above aren't bad ideas but overall, what we all need to focus on is what has caused so many different issues in the US that are local issues here that aren't happening or not nearly as bad as they are in this country. Why are less businesses being created? Why are violence issues so much worse? Why are more people dying in car crashes. Why are so many working age people dying here vs other countries. We had high immigrant levels in the past and life expectancy wasn't falling? Why is it now? Why are more people renouncing citizenship than in the past? What is the public angry about that isn't getting fixed that needs to be fixed? Is it acceptable for wealthy companies and individuals to write off all taxes or should there be a minimum tax level? Why can't the US as a whole compete with other developed countries on transportation systems and why is it at risk of falling behind in some military technology? Why are average American wages and worker protections falling behind? Why are so many American jobs being outsourced and how should companies be penalized if their CEO to lowest paid employee average get too high?or when too many of their jobs are outsourced? When should we penalize and punish companies for not being pro American enough? Why has it been so difficult and so long a challenge to eliminate money being kept in tax Haven's? How can excess red tape be removed to get America moving again? Why are pay rates and wealth and quality of life disparities so great across the country? Should wealthier areas pay higher taxes to support issues that are failing? Should companies be required to employ workers in a minimum number of states to spread wealth around or the number of companies or jobs be limited to the percent of population that lives in those areas?

    The cause of these issues is one thing. If steps aren't taken in a timely matter to address inequality and improve access to a basic quality of life, and they remain out of reach for large areas of the country and a high percent of workers overall, eventually every citizen, both rich and poor, could pay a big price when America ultimately fails because of a lack of cooperation across the board. A country can only get so corrupt and disfunctional before it eventually fails.

    The other question is what countries we should be trading with. If we trade with non union countries, in theory, we should also be non union. If most workers in the us are non union, they can't afford to pay union labor costs for houses or other services. Those with union jobs should in theory be required to pay for other union products and services. A union worker for example should shop at a union grocery store and a non union worker should shop at a non union grocery store because a basic non union worker can't afford to pay union rates, and union workers should be willing to pay union rates for other union workers. Both systems are very different and mixing them together doesn't work correctly domestically or internationally and leads to situations we are now experiencing with excessive living costs and lack of affordable housing. There are advantages and disadvantages of both just like there are pros and cons to trading between free and non free countries. Should most trade or outsourcing be allowed or encouraged between free and non free countries? There are very serious concerns to consider both options but both questions also answer one very specific questions...what pay rates do we want our own workers to get paid. Lower prices for everything require lower wages for all workers overall. Trading with non free, non union, low wage countries means we all need to be willing to to make similar sacrifices at home. The biggest question of all is...are we willing as a societt to make all those sacrifices in this country or not, because we can't expect to eat all the cake and keep it at the same time. The world economy is much like a teeter totter. If we outsource all our jobs abroad, we can't expect to have good jobs at home. Are we willing to trade permanent jobs for gig economy jobs? An economy doesn't work right if some people are gig workers and others aren't. If companies can outsource a good portion of positions, why not outsource everyone all the way to the top. It doesn't take an extremely overpaid CEO or board of directors to buy back stock and outsource all jobs...most outsourcing companies overseas could run large companies here in the US at a fraction of the cost for pennies in the dollar! If the only thing we care about as American's is ultra cheap, then we don't need quality anything in America. Politicians could be outsourced too...there are people that would be happy to be politicians for minimum wage and would probably offer to do the job as a contractor with no health, retirement, days off, sick time or health, dental, or insurance of any kind. If we are obsessed with being cheap, we should all be willing to work as independent, non union contractors that get paid a base wage only, but we ALL need to be willing to be a part of the SAME system because once again, if some people are and most aren't, the overall economy won't work right. The major solution is that the economy needs to be correctly tied together again. Politicians, CEO's and corporate boards pay should be pre determined based on what they offer their employees. Taxes should be based on how much individuals and companies donate to the country. Our biggest problem is that nothing is correctly tied together anymore... we've allowed our economy to become an inconsistent hack job that doesn't work right and it isn't going to until we set better ground rules to accomplish what we are actually trying to accomplish.

    Sunfiremn only has one comment to his account. Well, two can play at that game, comrade Sunfiremn.

    Everything you wrote was communist propaganda troll fiction junk from your laughably fictitious suicide rates to your laughably fictitious failure of military technologies to your laughably nonexistent collapse of the manufacturing sector that didn't happen. You write like a communist troll trolling the US Science sites. British? Chinese? Brexit got your tongue or your queen richard? Hong Kong got your tongue or your emperor wang? I'll wait for next week when America is back to being a health-crazed electric-vehicle building space-faring superpower that your country of third-world population-controlled broken-toy-making slave laborers will never, ever be.
    Reply