U.S. Life Expectancy Is Dropping For Alarming Reasons

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One hundred years ago, the United States was suffering from a massive pandemic and a world war that helped instigate a four-year decline in Americans' expected lifespans. Now, the country's experiencing the longest-running life expectancy drop since then. On Thursday, the government released reports indicating that the U.S. life expectancy decreased in 2017 for the third year in a row, and needless to say, the reasons are troubling.

While U.S. citizens born in 2016 were expected to live to an average age of 78.7, in 2017 they were expected to live to around 78.6 (about a month's difference), according to reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's especially significant because the last time American lifespans declined for more than a year in a row was the early '60s, per Time. And The Washington Post reports that life expectancies have been declining for a longer period than anytime since 1915-1918.

"I think this is a very dismal picture of health in the United States," Joshua M. Sharfstein of the Bloomberg School of Public Health told the Post. "Life expectancy is improving in many places in the world. It shouldn't be declining in the United States."

The primary causes of the trend seem to be the opioid crisis and rising rates of suicide. Importantly, though, there are massive disparities in what it looks like across gender and geographical lines.

Life expectancy hasn't actually declined at all for women since 2015; it's remained steadily at 81.5 years. The male life expectancy, then, is what's responsible for the overall decline. Men were predicted to have a 76.5-year lifespan in 2014, and that dropped to 76.1 by 2017.

The gap between life expectancies for rural and urban residents is also stark. The CDC has previously reported that deaths from opioid misuse are 45 percent higher in rural areas. Suicide statistics are particularly notable; according to The Post, suicide rates in urban regions are 11.1 people out of 100,000, whereas they're 20 out of 100,000 in rural areas. That's nearly double.

"Higher suicide rates in rural areas are due to nearly 60 percent of rural homes having a gun versus less than half of homes in urban areas," Keith Humphreys, a behavioral science professor at Stanford, told The Post. "Having easily available lethal means is a big risk factor for suicide." Other commentators have pointed to the fact that people in non-metropolitan areas often have less access to mental health services.

To reverse this course of declining lifespans, it seems that the nation will need to get ahold of its epidemics of suicide and opioid addiction. In October — before these latest CDC reports were released — a University of Washington study predicted what life expectancies would be worldwide in the year 2040, and that picture was already grim for the United States. The study anticipated that American life expectancies would increase to just 79.8 by then (the highest-ranked country was Spain, at 85.8 years), meaning that its relative ranking was expected to plummet in the intervening years. In fact, it would drop more than any other high-income country.

"Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the Nation's overall health," said Robert R. Redfield, director of the CDC, in a Thursday statement, "and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable."