Watch out! Glitches in cheap smartwatches may allow strangers to track children

December 12, 2019

While kids who wear smartwatches can keep in closer touch with their parents during the day, unfortunately, mom and dad may not be the only ones who are tracking their children’s activities. Security researchers have discovered vulnerabilities in cheap smartwatches for children that make it possible for strangers to override parental controls and follow kids, according to a report by Bloomberg.

Rapid7, a Boston-based cybersecurity firm, purchased three smartwatches on Amazon.com, costing from $20 to $35, according to Deral Heiland, research lead for IoT Technology at the company. He said the models—GreaSmart Children’s SmartWatchJsbaby Game Smart Watch, and SmarTurtle Smart Watch for Kids— were picked randomly from dozens for sale on Amazon and marketed as appropriate for grade school-aged kids.

According to the Bloomberg report, all three devices offer location tracking, messaging, and chat features. They were manufactured in China and shared nearly identical hardware and software. They also had similar security issues, Rapid7 found.

The watches let authorized users view and change configuration details by texting the watch directly with certain commands. In practice, this didn’t work and “unlisted numbers also could interact with the watch,” Rapid7 said in a report.

This security issue could be fixed with a vendor-supplied firmware update, but “such an update is unlikely to materialize, given that the providers of these devices are difficult to impossible to locate,” the cybersecurity firm noted.

The watches have a default password of “123456,” but one of the watch’s manuals doesn’t mention the password, according to the researchers. Another mentioned the password in a blog but not in its printed material. The third doesn’t characterize the numbers as a password nor does it provide instructions on how to change it, according to the researchers.

“Given an unchanged default password and a lack of SMS filtering, it is possible for an attacker with knowledge of the smartwatch phone number to assume total control of the device, and therefore use the tracking and voice chat functionality with the same permissions as the legitimate user (typically, a parent),” Rapid7 said in its report.

An unauthorized user could shut off all the safety protocols a parent had set up on the smartwatch, Heiland told Bloomberg in an interview.

Rapid7 said its researchers weren’t able to contact the sellers nor what they believe is the manufacturer of the watches, a Chinese company called 3g Electronics. The company didn’t respond to a message from Bloomberg News seeking comment.

The GreaSmart Children’s SmartWatch is no longer for sale on Amazon, according to Rapid7. GreaSmart, Jsbaby, SmarTurtle didn’t respond to a requests for comment. Oltec, a merchant that sells the SmarTurtle watch on Amazon, didn’t respond to a message sent via Amazon’s site.

“Consumers that are concerned with the safety, privacy, and security of their IoT devices and the associated cloud services are advised to avoid using any technology that is not provided by a clearly identifiable vendor, for what we hope are obvious reasons,” Rapid7 warned in its report.

Research contact: @business

MLB’s revised drug policy would essentially make weed legal throughout baseball

December 11, 2019

Some players would say that it’s high time: At their winter meeting on December 9, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association reportedly agreed to remove marijuana from the list of banned substances for minor leaguers.

The agreement is set to be a part of a wider deal involving opioid use in baseball, The Athletic reported December 9, according to Fox Business News. Major league players already are not being subjected to marijuana tests, which means pot would essentially be legalized throughout professional baseball.

Minor league baseball players had previously been subjected to a 25-game suspension for the first positive marijuana test; 50 games for the second positive test; 100 games for the third positive test; and a lifetime ban for a fourth positive test.

Indeed, Fox News notes, Major League Baseball’s policy is becoming similar to that of the National Hockey League. The NHL doesn’t punish players who test positive for marijuana but would recommend treatment if a player has “abnormally high levels” of THC in his system.

In the NFL, a player who tests positive for weed the first time enters a substance abuse program. After the second positive result, he gets fined two game checks; and its four game checks after the third positive test. After the fourth, a player gets a four-game suspension; and after the fifth, a 10-game suspension. A player who tests positive for marijuana a sixth time—and it’s hard to believe that a player would continue to smoke marijuana at this point—gets a one-year suspension.

NBA players are subjected to four random tests during the regular season. A player who tests positive the first time enters a substance abuse program,; on the second, he gets a $25,000 fine, on the third positive test, he gets a five-game suspension; and five more games for each subsequent positive test.

MLB and the MLBPA are working on changes to the drug policy in the months after Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs‘ death. Skaggs was found to have two different opioids in his system when he was found dead at a Texas hotel on July 1 prior to an Angels’ game against the Texas Rangers.

Under new the bylaws, players would not be suspended for opioid use but would be placed into a treatment program instead.

MLB and the MLBPA have not finalized their new drug agreement yet. MLBPA head Tony Clark said recently he was optimistic the two sides can agree on the new policy by the end of 2019.

Research contact: @FoxBusiness

Mochi ice cream goes mainstream

December 10, 2019

Walk into any supermarket today and you’ll find what used to be exotic edibles: They are called mochi—and they are small, frozen, bite-size balls of ice cream encased in rice dough.

In just the past three years, this finger food confection has evolved from an exotic niche dessert to a mainstream product, popping up nearly everywhere, including malls, street fairs, and major supermarket chains, CNN reports.

Mochi was invented in the United States nearly three decades ago, and was originally made using ice cream flavors with an Asian flair.

“It’s been around since the 1990s, but mochi ice cream was mostly available in specialty Asian food stores or on menus of Japanese restaurants in flavors like green tea, red bean and mango,” said Russell Barnett, a food industry veteran and chief marketing officer of Los Angeles-based My/Mo Mochi.

To help bring it to the masses, My/Mo created a flavor list most consumers felt instant familiarity with, such as chocolate sundae, S’mores, cookies & cream, strawberry, double chocolate and mint chocolate chip.

“I grew up eating vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream. Green tea and red bean weren’t a common part of the flavor profile in most households,” he told CNN.

Barnett recognized the inherent appeal of mochi ice cream to Millennials, a group he calls “a snacking generation.” Mochi is a portion-control snack of about 110 calories per ball, easy to hold and eat on the go. “We just retooled and adjusted it for today’s consumers,” he said.

My/Mo Mochi ice cream (which is gluten-free with some dairy free varieties) is produced at a manufacturing facility in Los Angeles and sold in packages of six, CNN reports. They’re also sold individually in portable freezers that Barnett calls self-serve “ice cream bars.”

Currently, My/Mo Mochi is now available in 20,000 stores nationwide. “We are in Target, Kroger, Walmart and everything in-between,” said Barnett. “We are reaching the masses where they shop.”

Competing mochi ice cream brands include Bubbies, Maeda-En and Mr. Mochi, but the My/Mo Mochi brand has captured close to 90% of market share, according to data from Nielsen. The brand’s sales were $175 million in annual revenue in 2019, according to Barnett.

Research contact: @CNN

Cheap thrills: How discount grocery chain Aldi is giving fancy supermarkets a run for their money

December 9, 2019

For years, Amber Walker held a dim view of Aldi, the discount grocer whose U.S. headquarters sits just a mile from her Batavia home, outside Chicago.  She associated it with dented 10-cent cans and no-name brands. She did not understand why, of all things, it also sold hammocks.

But Walker’s negative perception swiftly changed after her first visit to Aldi in decades in 2016, when the chain started accepting credit cards, and she found not the dingy floors from her childhood memories but a budget Shangri-La, The Chicago Tribune reports.

She could buy a week’s worth of groceries for her family of four for less than $100, and discover treasures in an aisle dedicated to random rotating items that “I don’t need but can’t live without.” Aldi, at least in Walker’s eyes, got even better when it broadened its limited selection to include more fresh, organic and high-end products—still at steep discounts— while undergoing an aggressive national expansion and chainwide remodeling blitz. Walker’s store in Batavia, renovated in 2017, even got a bakery.

Indeed, today, Aldi—which operates more than 1,900 stores in 36 states—takes what it calls “a simple, cost-effective approach to grocery shopping that saves [customers] on their grocery bills.” The store claims to save  shoppers up to 50% on their weekly must-haves by offering Aldi-branded goods—many of them manufactured by the nation’s leading food producers—instead of  name brands.

As a spruced-up Aldi climbs toward its goal of having 2,500 stores by 2022—which would make it the third-largest grocer in the nation by store count—converts like Walker are putting aside old perceptions of the brand and embracing the no-frills ethos that allows Aldi to sell quality products for cheap.

Although, The Chicago Tribune reports, behemoths like Walmart and Kroger continue to dominate the market, they are watching their backs as the German-born chain reshapes expectations of the shopping experience.

“I’m always shocked at what I can get for the cost,” said Walker, 37, an animal trainer who previously did her regular shopping at Walmart, Meijer, Costco and Super Target. “Aldi gets my business first, and then I will fill in holes elsewhere.”

Known for cost-saving measures—such as requiring customers to bag their own groceries and pay a quarter deposit to access a grocery cart—Aldi says its customer base has swelled as it modernizes its digs and broadens its selection to include items like fresh salmon, organic strawberries and artisanal cheeses.

At remodeled stores, which have been expanded to fit a bigger produce and fresh foods section, customer traffic has increased by 30% to 40%, Scott Patton, vice president of Corporate Buying told the Chicago-based news outlet.

“The more variety of products we carry, the more customers view Aldi as a place they can do their first shop of the week,” he said. While shoppers still have to go elsewhere for fresh ginger or water chestnuts or organic tofu— though Aldi is testing the latter—and can’t get a single lime without buying a one-pound bag, Patton said Aldi should cover 90% to 95% of their grocery list.

Aldi is ending the year with 2,000 stores, including 160 in the Chicago area, its largest market by store count. It has completed 70% of its $180 million in planned local renovations and is gaining ground on Jewel-Osco, the biggest local player, which has 188 stores in Illinois, Indiana and Iowa.

And the outlook is excellent: In a report last year, Morgan Stanley said one in five customers who recently switched grocery stores took their business to Aldi, a greater share than opted for Costco, Kroger, Target and Whole Foods. Walmart, the market leader, got 30% of switchers, but that was flat from the prior year while Aldi’s share was up significantly.

However, for all the Aldi nerds, there are plenty of people who prefer a more robust grocery experience, The Chicago Tribune says. Aldi does not have prepared hot foods or in-store dining options or butcher counters that shoppers value elsewhere.  At least, not yet.

“Would we ever have a piano player, a sushi bar or juice bar?” Patton said. “I would never say never. But I would say this: If we ever had any of those things, it would be the most efficient of our competitors, and we would do it better and faster than anyone else.”

Research contact: @chicagotribune

Sanitation insanity? Chipotle has nurses check if workers are sick

December 6, 2019

Chipotle has found a new way to protect the health of its customers and of its bottom line. The Mexican grill—which was responsible for a well-publicized juggernaut of norovirus among customers in Virginia in 2017—has instituted a regimen of strict food safety practices in order to prevent future outbreaks and reassure patrons at all of its 2,500 U.S. locations.

But has the chain of fast casual restaurants gone overboard to ensure employee health? An investigation at the time of the outbreak revealed that it was caused by store managers who failed to follow safety procedures and by an employee who worked while sick.  The company revealed this week that it has hired nurses to check whether employees who call in sick are genuinely unwell or just hungover, Business Insider reports.

“We have nurses on call, so that if you say, ‘Hey, I’ve been sick,’ you get the call into the nurse,” CEO Brian Niccol said at a Barclays conference on Wednesday, December 4. “The nurse validates that it’s not a hangover—you’re really sick—and then we pay for the day off to get healthy again.”

He added, “We have a very different food-safety culture than we did two years ago, OK?” Nobody gets to the back of the restaurant without going through a wellness check.”

However, a healthy workforce isn’t always enough to prevent customers from succumbing to germs in the environment. “There’s probably people in here that might have the common cold,” Niccol said at the conference, according to the news outlet. “Even if we clean up after you, and we don’t use a cleaner that kills that germ, it hangs around for the next customer.

“Even though our team member did nothing wrong—there was nothing wrong with our food—we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard to make sure that the dining room gets sanitized in a way that it hasn’t been in the past,” he said.

Chipotle has a solution: “We’ve got cleaner that actually kills norovirus when you clean the tables in the dining room,” Niccol said.

Research contact: @businessinsider

‘Bible business has really gone soft’: Philadelphia printer to shutter plant by Christmas

December 5, 2019

A generation ago, most families had a Bible. However, that’s not the case today. In fact, according to a 2017 study by LifeWay, 10% of Americans haven’t read even one page of the religious tome; and only 30% have perused several passages or stories.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that companies that print the Bible are not doing well. In fact, a Philadelphia enterprise that has printed more than a billion Bibles since its founding during the Civil War says its plant will be closed by Christmas.

LSC Communications of Chicago plans to shut the printing plant and lay off 174 workers, according to a report by The Philadelphia Inquirer. The company is consolidating Bible production at another plant it owns near Crawfordsville, Indiana, and moving some of the Philadelphia presses there, according to people who work at the plant.

“They say the Bible business has really gone soft, and their warehouses are full,” said Wayne Cox, business representative for Graphic Communications Conference of Teamsters local union 4-C, based in Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania, which represents 150 of the workers, along with printers at other companies in central Pennsylvania. LSC didn’t reply to an inquiry by the newspaper, seeking comment.

Cox told the Inquirer that he started on the line at National Publishing in 1973. It seemed like a job with a secure future, he noted: “The Bible is a No. 1 seller.”

The Philadelphia plant printed Bibles for Tennessee-based Bible distributor Gideons International.  Gideon Bibles were long a fixture in U.S. hotel rooms and other public places. But with the decline in U.S. churchgoing and a rise in travelers from non-Christian countries, Holy Scripture may be less in demand in some places.

The Borgata, Atlantic City’s largest hotel-casino, made headlines when it declined to stock rooms with Gideon Bibles in 2003. And the wide availability of online books has reduced demand for physical printing.

National was acquired by Massachusetts-based Christian-oriented publisher Courier Corp. in 1975 but continued to do business under its old name. Courier was bought by printer R.R. Donnelley in 2015 and spun off as part of a new company, LSC Communications, in 2016.

Cox said the union negotiated extra severance from the company beyond that already guaranteed in the Teamsters’ contract. The union leader added that young press operators are now seeking jobs outside the printing industry, since chain newspapers have shut most of their plants and consolidated printing at a few large locations.

Research contact: @PhillyInquirer

This $50 device is trying to disrupt the walkie-talkie market

December 4, 2019

A few months ago, the website for the Philadelphia-based startup, Relay Network, was adorned with smiling children and glowing testimonials from parents, illustrating how the $50 push-to-talk device would enable parents to chat with their kids and track their whereabouts as an alternative to the cellphone.

But, Fast Company reports, despite the family-friendly façade, companies in the hotel, amusement, and concessions businesses saw huge potential in Relay: Instead of using the small, squarish, screenless devices to help parents communicate with kids, what if they could be used to replace bulky and expensive walkie-talkies?

Some of these businesses—among them, Comcast, AAA, Citizens Bank, and DentaQuest—started placing orders, and Relay took note.

“Demand sort of showed up at our doorstep,” Chris Chuang, Relay’s co-founder and CEO told the business news outlet.

Now, Relay is rolling out a proper enterprise version of the product, with staid black and white color options and features specifically for business use— particularly for companies that have large numbers of employees who are out and about; not sitting behind desks.

Relay’s push-to-talk button serves as a quick way for workers to get in touch, and it even doubles as a panic button, letting construction crews or housekeepers rapidly send an emergency message. Relay also now offers a web app for businesses, so managers can communicate with their team’s Relay devices through a laptop.

Instead of just targeting an audience of worried parents, Relay hopes to take a piece of the nearly $3 billion walkie-talkie market, Fast Company says.

Although it doesn’t look like a smartphone from the outside, the Relay is similar on the inside, with 4G LTE radios, Wi-Fi connectivity, GPS for location tracking, a Qualcomm chipset, a headphone jack, and a battery that lasts roughly two days on a charge. The main difference, of course, is that it trades a touchscreen for a big button, which users can press and hold to talk with fellow Relay users over a cellular or Wi-Fi connection. Parents could then talk to their children through their own Relay devices or through Relay’s mobile app, which would also let them monitor their children’s location. The idea was to provide the connectivity of a smartphone without the addiction of yet another screen.

Chuang says Relay has “tens of thousands of customers” for the family version, but it turns out that the same properties that made Relay work for kids—durability, simplicity, cost-effectiveness—also appealed to businesses. While walkie-talkie apps do exist for smartphones, the touchscreen requires “active workers”—that is, those in fields like construction and hospitality—to stop looking at what they’re doing..

This helps explain why walkie-talkies have stuck around in the smartphone era, but they have their own problems. Most of them are large and heavy, so they’re impractical for workers that don’t have an easy way to tote them around, and the costs are as steep as those for a smartphone, ranging from several hundred dollars to over $1,000 per unit.

“These devices, they haven’t changed much from the Nextel days,” Chuang told the magazine.

And at $50 per device, the Relay is a lot cheaper than a traditional walkie-talkie, even when you factor in $10 per month for cellular service.

“The price point enables people to now arm more of their workforce,” Chuang says. “Our vision is really to connect every active worker, whereas today where you have to ration out the walkie-talkies.”

And although the walkie-talkie business is unglamorous, it’s arguably ready for some disruption. According to Maia Research Analysis, the market has grown in revenue by over 8% every year for the past three years, and the group expects that trend to continue through at least 2024, at which point revenues could exceed $4.8 billion. Despite being more than 75 years old, the walkie-talkie isn’t slowing down.

Relay’s Chris Chuang argues that major vendors such as Motorola—which alone has 50% of the market—don’t have the expertise in smartphone-like hardware, software, and networking to make a product like Relay. But perhaps more importantly, walkie-talkie makers currently enjoy gross profit margins of over 40% on devices that can cost hundreds of dollars; they may not want to cannibalize that business with hardware that sells for a tenth of the cost. He notes that while Motorola has started offering cellular connectivity in some of its radios, the feature is only available on high-end models as a profit booster.

“A disruptively priced product like Relay would threaten their existing revenues greatly,” he says.

Still, Relay may not need to completely upend the walkie-talkie business to succeed. By virtue of being lighter and cheaper, it may appeal to workers who otherwise might not use a walkie-talkie at all. Schools, for instance, might want to equip their teachers with something lightweight for emergencies, and housekeepers could use them as protection against abuse, especially with a wave of state laws mandating panic buttons for hotel staff.

Chuang doesn’t like to say it publicly, but internally Relay thinks of itself as a Slack for active workers, the implication being that it’s a platform whose usefulness will extend as more businesses get on-board.

“As we get with customers, they brainstorm almost as much as we do,” he says.

Research contact: @FastCompany

Is your Canada Goose parka keeping you single?

December 4, 2019

When it comes to potential partners, Lily Primamore, 28, considers herself pretty “non-judgmental.”

“I love everyone,” Primamore, who works at a gallery in New York City’s Soho, told The Daily Beast. Well, except. . .

“If you came to me and said, ‘Hey Lily, I’m going to set you up on a blind date,’” Primamore suggested, “And I went and saw someone sitting across from me in a Canada Goose coat, I would have to ask: ‘How would you feel if Freddy Krueger was sitting at [your] table?’ I’m going to have to go the other way, no thank you.”

Primamore, who has been vegan for about a year, loathes the trending Canadian label’s use of coyote fur trim and goose down lining, The Daily Beast reports.

What’s more, the knee-length padded parka—complete with the label’s insignia patch stamped over the right shoulder—costs over $1,000. Originally created in the 1950s as rugged outdoor gear for Canadian Rangers and other open-air workers, the parka gained instant “it” status when it was spotted on Rihanna and given away as Sundance Festival swag, the news outlet says.

But with its rise in prominence came overexposure. The perhaps inevitable backlash manifested in blogs like the now-dormant Canada Douche tumblr, which existed to publicly shame college students wearing the label. This month, the Chicago Tribune published a list of “Canada Goose alternatives: 10 ultra-warm winter coats that won’t set you back $1,000.” Animal

While at dinner a few weeks ago, a friend of The Daily Beast’s style writer Alaina Demopoulos posed the question, “What if you met someone in the summer who was perfect, but then it got cold and you realized they had a Canada Goose jacket?”

Afterward, she says she conducted “a very unscientific poll on my Instagram stories”—learning that 75% of those who answered would consider the offense a deal-breaker.

The reasons? “Animals rights [represented] the top concern, along with the coat being a major wealth flex and, to some, just plain boring.”

As Primamore asked, “What are you trying to symbolize [by wearing that brand of coat] other than being ridiculously expensive?”

“Everybody has those jackets,” Berto Calkins, 30, told The Daily Beast. “It’s kind of corny to be following that trend just because it’s expensive. You could get a different brand. Go to Zara and get a warm jacket—or worse-case scenario, layer!”

The personal trainer and nutritionist is currently coupled up, but if he were still dating, he’d pass on Canada Goose clones. “Some people buy the coat because it’s warm or whatever, but at the end of the day you’re buying it because of the branding.”

But Tedi Sarah, 32, who has been vegan for six years, takes a more measured approach, she said in an interview with the news outlet. “I’m all about living a cruelty-free lifestyle and making kinder choices for animals, people, and the planet, but there was a time when I didn’t know about these issues either,” she said. “As long as the person I’m dating is interested in learning more and open to making kinder choices, that works for me. It’s all about progress, not perfection.”

Canada Goose’s trapping methods have been meticulously documented by animal-welfare groups like PETA, which regularly stage protests outside stores, complete with fake blood strewn over cuddly coyote costumes.

This increased awareness, spurred by watchdog groups, does not seem to deter customers. Canada Goose revealed last month that its revenue increased over 27% from last year, bringing in a total of CA$249 million.

The brand has responded on its website, writing in a statement that “We do not condone any willful mistreatment, neglect, or acts that maliciously cause animals undue suffering. Our standards for sourcing and use of fur, down, and wool reflect our commitment that materials are sourced from animals that are not subject to willful mistreatment or undue harm.”

But maybe leave the parka at home on your next date. There are other ways to flaunt your six-figure salary. Or as Primamore put it, “It’s a black jacket with f**ing fur on it. You can find that from Chanel and Gucci, too.”

Research contact: @thedailybeast

Fruit that doesn’t spoil? Extending shelf life is a key tactic in the battle against food waste—and a startup is on the front lines

December 2, 2019

Imagine avocados that never go bad. To Aidan Mouat, CEO of Hazel Technologies, that’s not so far-fetched, The Chicago Tribune reports.

His company makes a product that extends the shelf life of all sorts of produce — bananas, cherries, pears, broccoli—by slowing the chemical process that causes decay.

Now, some of the world’s largest growers are using it to send their produce longer distances, or to reduce the amount that retailers throw away; and Mouat tells the Tribune that a consumer version could be next.

Indeed, as much as 40% of food produced annually in the United States, and nearly half of produce, goes uneaten, according to government estimates. While the waste happens throughout the supply chain, the vast majority of the $218 billion worth of uneaten food annually gets tossed at home or at grocery stores and restaurants, according to ReFED, a Berkeley, California-based nonprofit that seeks solutions to reduce food waste.

The average American family throws away 25% of groceries purchased, costing a family of four an estimated $1,600 annually, ReFED says. U.S. supermarkets lose $15 billion annually in unsold fruits and vegetables, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

 “I envision, in the next 18 months or so, literally selling a banana box to consumers,” Mouat said from Hazel’s growing office space at University Technology Park, a startup innovation hub on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. “You keep it on your counter, put a (Hazel) sachet in there once a month, and you have bananas that last forever.”

Whate are those sachets? The company makes the small packs—the size of a salt or pepper packet included with takeout—that can be thrown into a box of produce to shut down the food’s response to ethylene, a chemical naturally emitted by many fruits and vegetables that triggers the loss of firmness, texture and color. The sachets continuously emit a small amount of an ethylene inhibitor, changing the atmosphere in the storage box but not the food itself.

How much Hazel can extend the shelf life depends on the type of food. For example, tests show an unripened pear gets an extra seven to 10 days after being treated with a Hazel sachet, plus an extra three to four days once ripe.

While ethylene management technology isn’t new, Hazel’s sachets are gaining fans because they are easy to use, whether in okra fields in Honduras or avocado packing houses in the United States, Mouat told the Tribune. In addition to ethylene inhibitors, the company is working on anti-microbial reactions and will soon bring to market antimicrobial liners for packages of berries, to ward off the white fuzz.

And the company also is gaining buzz and investors. Founded in 2015 by a group of Northwestern University graduate students, Hazel Technologies has raised $18 million so far, including nearly $1 million in grants from the USDA. It has 100 clients in 12 countries in North and South America.

Research contact: @chicagotribune

‘A distinctly American phenomenon’: Our workers die younger than those in other wealthy nations

November 27, 2019

Americans work hard and die young, according to findings of a study conducted at Virginia Commonwealth University.  In fact, the engine that powers the world’s most potent economy is succumbing at an alarming pace—a “distinctly American phenomenon’’ with no easily discernible cause or simple solution, USA Today reported on November 26.

Specifically, researchers determined that mortality rates for U.S. adults ages 25-64 continue to increase—driving down the general population’s life expectancy for the three consecutive years following 2014.

The report, Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017,’’ was published on November 26  in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

According to USA Today, it paints a bleak picture of a workforce plagued by drug overdoses, suicides, and organ-system diseases while grappling with economic stresses.

“This looks like an excellent paper—just what we needed to help unravel the overall decline in life expectancy in the United States’’ said Eileen Crimmins, the AARP Professor of Gerontology at the University of California-Leonard Davis. She’s who’s an expert on the link between health and socioeconomic factors.

In a trend that cuts across racial and ethnic boundaries, America has the worst midlife mortality rate among 17 high-income countries despite leading the world in per-capita spending on health care.

And while life expectancy in those other industrialized nations continues to inch up, ours has been going in the opposite direction—decreasing from a peak of 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 in 2017, the last year covered by the report.

By comparison, the news outlet reports, according to the Peterson-Kaiser Health System Tracker, the average longevity in similar countries is 82.2 years. Japan’s is 84.1; France’s, 82.4;and Canada’s, 81.9. They left the United States behind in the 1980s and increased the distance as the rate of progress in this country diminished and eventually halted in 2011.

Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Virginia Commonwealth University Center on Society and Health and the study’s lead author, said the reasons for the decline go well beyond the lack of universal health care in America—in contrast with those other nations—although that’s a factor.

“It would be easier if we could blame this whole trend on one problem, like guns or obesity, or the opioid epidemic—all of which distinguish [the U.S.] from the other countries,’’ Woolf told USA Today. “But we found increases in death rates across 35 causes of death.’’

They were most pronounced in the industrial Midwest, the 13 Appalachian states, and upper New England, which Woolf attributed partly to the decline in manufacturing jobs and the opioid epidemic.

Of the top 10 states with the highest number of excess deaths in the 25-64 age range —meaning deaths above projections based on U.S. mortality rates—eight were in the Rust Belt or Appalachia. Half of the excess deaths were concentrated in the latter region. The Ohio Valley—comprising Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—accounted for one-third.

“Not only are employers more likely to see premature deaths in their workers, but also greater illness rates and greater disability, and that puts U.S. businesses at a disadvantage against businesses in other countries that have a healthier and more productive workforce,’’ Woolf said, adding that employers here are already saddled with high health care costs.

The report showed mortality rates among those younger than 25 and older than 64 have decreased. That might point a finger at the country’s dysfunctional health care system for working adults, because many in those other age groups can be covered by either the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) or Medicare.

Woolf told USA Today that he disputes that notion, saying only 10% to 20% of health outcomes can be attributed to medical care. He said the bigger culprit is a lack of social programs and support systems more common in other wealthy countries for when working families run into difficult times.

Those rough spells, often associated with a job loss, can lead to the kind of unhealthy behaviors – drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, overeating, suicide attempts—that result in what have become known as “deaths of despair.’’

“We’re making a huge mistake if we don’t step back and look at the root causes,’’ Woolf told the news oulet—ncluding a lack of educational opportunities and living wages among the likely causes. “The prescription for the country is we’ve got to help these people. And if we don’t, we’re literally going to pay with our lives.’’

Research contact: @USATODAY