A consistent increase in life expectancy is one of society’s bedrock measures of progress. When people are living a bit longer each year it means we are eating better, exercising more, becoming more prosperous, reducing stress, and learning how to treat and prevent illnesses. It means things are improving.
So what does it signify when for the first time in 55 years, the United States saw life expectancy decline for two years in a row, as it did in 2015 and 2016?
It means this country is growing sicker. It means this country is killing itself, with drugs and suicides, and that Alzheimer’s is a disease it cannot get a handle on.
The life expectancy of a baby born in 2016 declined about one month over one born in 2015, to 78 years and seven months on average. That measure had declined two months from 2014 to 2015. The last time life expectancy in the United States declined two years in a row was 1962-1963, when a flu epidemic tilted the figures.
The biggest reason for the sad change is an opioid epidemic that led to about two-thirds of the 63,600 drug deaths in 2016, an increase of about 20 percent over the previous year’s record-setting tally of drug deaths. That’s a death rate that’s tripled nationally since 1999.
Another reason for the reduction in life expectancy is a rate of suicide that’s been steadily increasing for the past 30 years and left about 45,000 people dead in 2016. Yet another is the fast-growing incidence of Alzheimer’s deaths, up more than 5 percent to 116,000 from 2015 to 2016.
There is something terribly sad about this decline, particularly the drug deaths and suicides. Life expectancy in the United States is years less than in comparably wealthy countries. And it appears a big reason is that people are taking their own lives, or finding them so unhappy that the pain must be dulled with heavy, deadly drugs. That so much of what is killing us seems to involve despair and mental illness and preventable life choices offers both hope and sadness. It’s clear the trend is reversible. But it’s also clear we need to be as committed to fighting suicide and addiction as we have been in the past toward AIDS and influenza if we are going to change that trend.