The average American lifespan keeps getting shorter, even as comparably rich countries rebound and recover after Covid-19.
Recently, National Public Radio (NPR) in the US published a story titled ‘Live free and die? The sad state of US life expectancy’ that explored the great divide between the United States and peer countries on life expectancy.
While most countries experienced a dip during the Covid-19 pandemic and rebounded after vaccines and other treatments were rolled out, American life expectancy has essentially fallen off a cliff and never came back.
The graph published by NPR is shocking. It shows that US life expectancy is lower than in Cuba or Lebanon. The number has been known since just before Christmas when health officials announced that the country’s life expectancy had dropped starkly for a second year in a row to 76 years.
However, last week more bad news arrived after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that maternal mortality in the country reached a high in 2021. And another paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found rising mortality rates among US children and adolescents. This means you can’t blame Covid-19 exclusively for the drop in life expectancy and assume it’ll jump right back up as soon as the pandemic is finally dealt with.
The rate of maternal deaths in 2021 was 32.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, which is more than ten times higher than some other high-income countries, including Australia, Austria, Israel, Japan and Spain which all had rates between 2 and 3 deaths per 100,000 in 2020.
Regarding childrens’ increased mortality rate, Steven Woolf, the lead author of the JAMA paper and director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University put it quite succinctly. “This is the first time in my career that I’ve ever seen [an increase in pediatric mortality] – it’s always been declining in the United States for as long as I can remember. Now, it’s increasing at a magnitude that has not occurred for at least half a century.”
The paper notes that this goes far beyond stereotypes of Americans having poor eating habits or other unhealthy addictions. It found that “American children are less likely to live to age 5 than children in other high-income countries.” It continues stating that “even Americans with healthy behaviors, for example, those who are not obese or do not smoke, appear to have higher disease rates than their peers in other countries.”
The researchers cataloged what they described as the “US health disadvantage,” which essentially means that just living in the country is worse for your health and makes you die younger than in other comparable countries. Given the recent environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, where droves of carcinogenic chemicals were allowed to burn freely in the air and deposit into the soil, this may also be part of the explanation. The incident also has impacted a major metropolitan area and my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.
Additionally, right now residents of one of the largest American cities, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, are being told to drink bottled water because more than 8,000 gallons of latex-finishing solution spilled into Otter Creek in Bristol, near Philadelphia, on March 24th. Some of the chemicals in the spill include butyl acrylate, just as those released in East Palestine. It seems that such environmental disasters are becoming more frequent.
Perhaps the most baffling statistic, at least for a non-American, is that since 2020, gunfire has been the leading cause of death for children and young adults in the US, surpassing even car crashes, which had previously topped the list. Almost 20% of all deaths of Americans aged one to 18 who died in the past three years were gun-related. Compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the US is the only country where guns are the leading cause of death for people in this age bracket – no other nation even has it in the top four.
Be it the stereotypical bad eating habits and endemic obesity, increasingly frequent environmental disasters, or the scourge of gun violence, there is indeed a “disadvantage” to simply existing in the US. As a consequence, as I can attest, more and more young Americans are looking to settle down in other countries – rather than wait for lawmakers to actually do something to protect the people from these dangers.
In the end, whether it’s Republicans sounding the alarm over the opioid crisis and rising drug deaths, or Democrats shouting themselves hoarse about the need for stricter gun laws to curb the disastrous gun-death stats, what most of them are interested in first and foremost is scoring points against each other. Actually helping their constituents comes as an afterthought.