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).
“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.’’
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