The Drop In US Life Expectancy Highlights America’s Broken Healthcare System
US life expectancy has decreased for the second time in three years, to 78.6 years in 2017, according to the CDC. While the drop was only recorded as about 0.1 years from the years before, it is still a significant negative trend. The last time the average American lifespan decreased that drastically was between 1915 -1918, when the US was dealing with WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic.
The biggest cause for the drop was attributed to increases in deaths from opioids and suicide, which have increased more than fourfold and threefold over the last twenty years, respectively. Opioid deaths have seen a 45 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 alone due to the spread fo the drug fentanyl. This is particularly troubling, as many of those deaths were young adults.
The CDC reports underpin the overall dismal record of the US healthcare system as a whole. The US’ life expectancy is last among rich countries, comparable to eastern European countries like Albania rather than world leaders like Japan (84 years.) Where the US does lead is in the prevalence of conditions such as obesity, which are primary risk factors for other causes of death such as heart disease and stroke. Even if they do not cause death, such factors increase the number of years Americans live in morbidity or disability, often due to conditions such as diabetes.
The burdens of death and disease are also not spread evenly but vary among a variety of socioeconomic and geographical factors. For example, opioid deaths are concentrated in the New England and Rust Belt regions, while deaths from suicide disproportionately affect the swathe of western states from Montana to New Mexico. Politics plays a role too; the states with the largest death rates are all red states with Republican governments who have blocked progress on healthcare provisions for generations.
Race plays a huge factor too, as minorities suffer greater rates of death and disease from most conditions. Nowhere is this starker than in the case of maternal mortality. The US has the highest maternal mortality of any rich country and is the only industrialized nation where this rate is increasing. The majority of maternal deaths are black women, who are three to four times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related complication than white women. Maternal mortality rates for white women are closer to those of women in New Zealand; while for black women, they closer to those in Malaysia.
These trends should alarm and disturb Americans, yet generally take second stage, even in the wider healthcare debate. Lost in the main healthcare conversations of our day – for or against the ACA, the pros and cons of “Medicaid for All” etc. – is the wider realization that this country has treated healthcare as a badly allocated commodity instead of a primary public good and fundamental human right. This change in thinking must take root in the American populace if the average citizen is ever to live a longer and healthier life.
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