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Live Healthier: Here’s Why U.S. Life Expectancy is Declining

Updated statistics that are concerning public health officials conclude that life expectancy in the United States declined again in 2017.

In most developed nations, life expectancy has steadily moved upward. For decades, U.S. life expectancy was also increasing, but it fell in 2015, stayed level in 2016, and declined again last year, government figures show.

A higher suicide rate and drug overdoses stemming from the opioid epidemic are largely to blame, but there are other factors involved, experts say. These include preventable factors that contribute to a rising obesity rate and a sedentary lifestyle among a majority of Americans.

Americans born in 2017 can expect to live 78.6 years, down a tenth of a year from the 2016 estimate, according to a new report from U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [1] (CDC). The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics calculated that men can anticipate a life span of 76.1 years, down a tenth of a year from 2016. Life expectancy for women in 2017 was 81.1 years, unchanged from the previous year.

Rare Reversal for a Developed Nation
U.S. life expectancy has declined, on average, three-tenths of a year since 2014, a rare reversal for a developed nation. Life expectancy is 84.1 years in Japan and 83.7 years in Switzerland. Those two nations are first and second in the most-recent ranking by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S. ranks 29th on that list.

Japan has regions designated as “blue zones,” which are areas where residents have the longest recorded life expectancy rates, with people living well into their 90s and beyond. Andrew Forster, M.D. [2], an internal medicine physician at Baptist Health Primary Care [3] on Miami Beach, says the key to human longevity in these areas is three-fold. “People living in these so-called ‘Blue Zones’ follow a plant-based diet, exercise regularly and have a strong family support system, even into their elderly years,” he said.

In the U.S., suicides and drug overdoses drove up deaths last year and are fueling the continuing decline in how long Americans are expected to live. Despite a large aging population that includes “baby boomers,” the estimated 75 million Americans born between 1945 and 1965, it’s the deaths among younger age groups — especially the middle-aged — that have had the largest impact on calculations of life expectancy, experts said.

U.S. Deaths in 2017 Reached New High
There were more than 2.8 million U.S. deaths in 2017, or nearly 70,000 more than the previous year, the CDC says. This represents the most deaths in a single year since the government began keeping track more than 100 years ago. Drug overdoses set another annual record in 2017, peaking at 70,237 — up from 63,632 the previous year, the government said in a separate report. The opioid epidemic fueled these deaths — with 47,600 deaths in 2017 from drugs sold on the street such as fentanyl and heroin, as well as prescription narcotics.

The numbers on suicide are no less troubling. From 2016 to 2017, the suicide rate increased 3.7 percent, the CDC reports. During the past 18 years, the suicide rate jumped 33 percent, from 10.5 suicides per 100,000 in 1999 to 14.0 in 2017.

“Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” said Robert Redfield, M.D., the CDC’s director, said in a statement.

All combined, the new data resulted in the longest decline in expected life span at birth in a century, going back to the days of World War I and a global flu pandemic that marked the 1915 through 1918 period.

Obesity & Other Lifestyle Factors
In 2017, the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. remained the same: heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide.

The nation’s obesity epidemic is also having an impact on life expectancy. Poor eating habits, sedentary lifestyles and not controlling one’s weight are risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and many cancers, numerous studies have confirmed.

Eight years ago, the American Heart Association developed “Life’s Simple 7,” [4] a campaign to help U.S. adults adopt healthier habits. The seven steps that individuals can take are: manage blood pressure, control cholesterol, reduce blood sugar, get active, eat better, lose weight and stop smoking.

“These are seven simple factors that each individual can focus on responsibly that can reduce the likelihood of them developing heart disease and other chronic conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, chronic lung disease, obesity and so on,” said Theodore Feldman, M.D. [5], medical director of prevention and community health at Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute [6] at Baptist Health South Florida.

For the first time in 10 years, the U.S. government this month updated its minimum exercise guidelines [7] to help adults, and their kids, achieve the many health benefits of regular physical activity. “Move more and sit less” whenever possible is the key message in 2018. That’s because just 26 percent of men, 19 percent of women and 20 percent of adolescents are meeting the minimum exercise standards.

Inhabitants of the world’s Blue Zone areas, where life expectancy rank highest, generally avoid processed foods and animal-based diets, engage in daily physical activity and have lower stress levels due to family support, regulated sleep cycles and strong community connections.

“People in these communities walk everywhere and work off the land, often to get their food,” Dr. Forster said. “The elderly aren’t lonely, and in fact, rarely live or eat alone. These cultural norms fuel longevity.”