For the first time in decades, the life expectancy in the United States has declined. As USA Today puts it, it poses a “real problem.”
The life expectancy has steadily increased since the end of WWII. New medicine, more advanced medical studies and better education have all helped push the rate of life expectancy higher. The only other times the life expectancy has seen a decline was in 1980 during a particularly strong flu outbreak and in 1993 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. But from 2014 to 2015, we’ve seen another fall in U.S. life expectancy.
What makes this decline different, however, is that there is no single major disease or cause attributed to the declining rates. Instead, causes of death are increasing across several categories.
What the Studies Found
The decline was first reported in a study by the National Center for Health Statistics. The new study found that, out of the top 10 leading causes of death, death rates rose for eight of them. That includes accidents, drug overdoses, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other conditions. One of the only categories to actually decline from 2014 to 2015 was cancer, for which the death rate fell about 1.7%.
The life expectancy for both men and women has declined, and mortality rates have increased the most for people under the age of 65. David Weir, director of health and retirement at the Institute of Social Research at the University of Michigan told the Washington Post that there’s been an increase in, “virtually every cause of death. It’s all ages.”
Overall, there were around 2.7 million deaths in 2015 — the highest increase in death rates since 1999.
Reasons for Declining Life Expectancy Rates
Researchers aren’t exactly sure what’s caused life expectancy to fall, but they have offered a few theories.
Some researchers are hopeful it’s just an anomaly. They believe the numbers are too early to call it a trend and are holding out to see what the death rates in 2016 will look like.
Robert Anderson, the chief of mortality statistics for the National Center for Health Statistics told the New York Times that “We really need more data to know. If we start looking at 2016 and we see another rise, we’ll be a lot more concerned.”
But other researchers are already alarmed. They believe the rise in death rates can be attributed to what they call the “diseases of despair.” These are causes of death — such as drug overdose, alcoholism, and suicide — that go hand in hand with socioeconomic factors.
Irma Elo, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told NPR news that the increases in unintentional deaths “could be related to the economic circumstances that many Americans have experienced in the last eight years, or so, since the recession.”
Problems such as income inequality, stagnant wages, lack of access to health care and nutritional food sources, stress and depression, and long-term unemployment have all helped surge the death rate in these “despair” categories. The opioid and painkiller epidemic alone has been a huge factor in the increased death rate in impoverished areas.
Obesity is another factor researchers believe is behind why more Americans are dying young. In 2015, weight problems accounted for more than 10% of Americans deaths, as the number of deaths from stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and chronic lower respiratory disease all rose.
The Washington Post stated that other industrial Western nations aren’t experiencing the same rise in mortality rates, meaning that whatever factors are causing life expectancy to decrease are unique to just the United States.
Differences Across America
The fact that researchers disagree on one single cause for this decrease in life expectancy isn’t surprising when you look at maps of the different causes of death in America. In 2014, there are clear hotspots for cardiovascular disease in the South and substance abuse and mental health disorders in Appalachia.
While we don’t know for sure what’s causing this decrease in life expectancy at the moment, it’s definitely something to watch during the next few years.