For the first time in more than two decades, life expectancy for Americans has declined over the past two years—a development linked to a complicated panoply of worsening health and behavioral disorders in the United States. Recent research by two economists at Princeton described the unexpected jump in mortality rates among white middle-aged Americans as diseases of despair, including drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide. Rising mortality from heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are most likely the best explanation to the lower life expectancy. The National Center for Health Statistics stated that death rates have risen for eight of the top 10 leading causes of death. Disease of the mind and body are less distinguishable now, as we discover important relationships between emotional and physical health. The gut biome and mental illness, being perhaps the best current example.
Changes in Life Expectancy
The researchers of this most recent report noted that between 2000 and 2014, the rate of fatal drug overdoses rose by 137%, fueled in part by the growing use of highly addictive opioid drugs. In 2015 alone, more than 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses. Addictive disease has long-reaching physical, familial and psychiatric consequences, and is decimating individuals, families and the social fabric of many communities. Yet, death rates from alcohol abuse and suicides have risen dramatically as well. Between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate rose by 24%.6 The CDC now tracks the suicide rate for 10-14 year-old-girls. These “deaths of despair,” as they have been called, are disproportionately affecting white Americans, especially adults aged 25-59 years. Other risk factors include limited education, residing in rural communities and being female. The worsening economic condition (unemployment, more people on welfare, etc.) over the past decade has also played a role in the growing “despair” among many Americans.
Why Does This Matter?
The combination of numerous health risk factors in American life including obesity, increased heart disease and the rising drug, depression and suicide rates explain this shocking revelation. Health disparities are real and must be studied to determine the best prevention and intervention strategies. As we have previously reported, our health care system is burning out doctors who are also at greater risk for depression, addiction and suicide.
Woolf SH, Aron L. Failing health of the United States. BMJ. 2018 Feb 7;360:k496. doi: 10.1136/bmj.k496.