Still Life with Dove

A Meager Regain in Life Expectancy

Let’s call this a half step. During the pandemic, Americans lost almost two and a half years in life expectancy. Men did worse than women. Now the news from CDC is that in 2022, we got back just a little more than a year of that loss – a meager regain in life expectancy. Jacob Bor, an associate professor of global health and epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, sums up the disappointment:

“To me, these numbers are rather bleak. The extent to which life expectancy has recovered is far short of what people had hoped.”

Just about all of these gains came from the receding toll of COVID-19. Offsetting those gains were increases in mortality due to flu and pneumonia, complications around birth, kidney disease, and poor nutrition.

Falling Behind Since the 1980s

America has been falling behind since the 1980s when the federal government started counting ketchup as a vegetable and obesity began more swiftly rising. Eileen Crimmins is chair of gerontology at the University of Southern California. She told NPR that the poor performance of America on life expectancy is quite straightforward:

“We started falling, relative to other countries, in the 1980s and we have just fallen further and further behind. Other wealthy countries in Europe and Asia do much better on preventing early deaths from causes such as heart disease, gun violence, giving birth and infectious diseases for which there are vaccines. These are things that don’t require scientific investigation to know how to actually prevent them. Other countries prevent them. We don’t.”

The Fraying Social Fabric

All of this occurs against the background of a fraying social fabric. Inequality in wealth has grown in the U.S. to become higher than almost any other advanced economy. Many Americans with wealth benefit from government subsidies that help to keep them wealthy while trapping others in poverty, says Matthew Desmond in his compelling book, Poverty by America.

This is not a simple story of racial and ethnic disparities. The disparities reach into rural communities. They affect White persons with poor educations. This is a story of Americans dying at increasing rates from conditions connected to despair from diminished prospects for meaningful, happy, and prosperous lives, as Anne Case and Angus Deaton have described so well.

America will be unlikely to regain its footing in life expectancy until we address the disparities that are driving this disparity.

Click here for the new CDC report, here and here for further reporting on it. For more on mortality, inequality, and deaths of despair, click here, here, here, and here.

Still Life with Dove, painting by Paul Klee / WikiArt

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December 5, 2023