Why Americans are dying young

IAmericans’ lives are getting shorter. A new study has shown that life expectancy in the US, which rose steadily over the past half-century, has now fallen for three years running. The downward trend is the result of an alarming hike in mortality rates among those between the ages of 25 and 64. Americans in the prime of adult life are increasingly succumbing to so-called “deaths of despair”, through drug or alcohol abuse, suicide, obesity and chronic stress. This phenomenon was once thought to be limited to rural white America, but the new study shows that it has spread to the suburbs and cuts across gender, racial and ethnic lines. In the words of the lead author of the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Steven H. Woolf, the rise in premature deaths is evidence that, in America today, “there’s something terribly wrong”.

The opioid epidemic is one of the main culprits, said Joel Achenbach in The Washington Post. Mortality from drug overdoses among working-age women in the US jumped by an astonishing 486% between 1999 and 2017; among men in the same period, it increased by 351%. Obesity has also played a big part. “The average woman in America today weighs as much as the average man half a century ago, and men now weigh about 30 pounds more.” But the problem is much wider than that. Mortality has increased across 35 causes of death. Whether as a result of economic hardship, stress, the lack of universal healthcare, loneliness or family breakdown, people just aren’t looking after themselves properly, and are making destructive life choices.

This is a “distinctly American phenomenon”, said Jorge L. Ortiz in USA Today. The US has the worst midlife mortality rate among 17 high-income countries, despite spending more than any other nation on healthcare. When it comes to life expectancy, other wealthy countries “left the US behind in the 1980s” and have widened the gap ever since. Average longevity in Japan is 84.1; in France, 82.4; in Canada, 81.9; in the UK, 81.2. In America, by contrast, it has fallen to 78.6.

We need to tackle this disparity, for the sake of creating a happier, healthier country, and because our economic well-being depends on it. If we don’t fix it, we’ll all pay the price. (The Week, 7 Dec 2019)

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