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The reasons that average American life spans are getting shorter are complex and numerous.
The reasons that average American life spans are getting shorter are complex and numerous.

Life expectancy has dropped: Why it matters



Americans born in 1959 could expect to live 69.9 years, on average. By 2014, life expectancy had improved to 78.9 years.

By 2017, it was down slightly, to 78.6 years.

Working-age Americans are now less likely to live to retirement age than at any time in recent history, according to a study about life expectancy in the United States that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

A look at life expectancy in two Syracuse ZIP code zones located about 5 miles apart.A look at life expectancy in two Syracuse ZIP code zones located about 5 miles apart.

In studying the years 1955 to 2017, researchers found downward trends in life expectancy for three successive years since 2014.

Life expectancy at birth in the U.S. had steadily increased over the past several decades. Now, the decline reveals the U.S. with a health disadvantage compared with other high-income nations, even though the U.S. maintains the highest per capita health care spending in the world.

Christopher Morley, PhD, chair of public health and preventive medicine at Upstate, helps explain the significance of this data:

What is the point of studying life expectancy?

As an indicator, life expectancy provides a rough guide to what’s happening within the population. How long you expect to live is a good measure of the overall health of your population. However, it is important to explore the details underlying life expectancy to really see what’s going on. The details give us a picture of our society that can tell us both what we need to pay attention to and what we need to fix, as well as who we are and what we value.

Why are life spans shorter now?

For many and complex reasons.

We have shifted as a society away from the single-income household model, at least among some middle-class Americans, to jobs that are more sedentary and pay lower wages. We’ve shifted from jobs one might expect to hold for life, such as unionized manufacturing jobs, to itinerant labor for many people, or what is known as the “gig economy.” Many people are working multiple jobs.

At the same time, people don’t have time to prepare meals, and they end up eating takeout or processed food. 

This is a shift that is felt in the middle class but is familiar to underserved communities, which have historically relied upon service industries for jobs and fast-food restaurants for meals, since their neighborhoods often lacked stores that sell fresh produce.

When you combine economic instability with the increasingly sedentary lifestyle and the way we eat, you see a real change in lifestyle and a demographic shift. When we combine all of these things together with economic changes to the way people expect their lives to proceed, we see a rise in mortality from

“diseases of despair,” such as deaths from drug overdoses, suicide and alcohol-related diseases. Since 1999, researchers found these three causes of death generally increased for adults from the ages of 25 to 64. 

Tied into the same changing economic and social conditions are resultant lifestyle shifts, which are

cumulative and contribute to conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity and kidney failure.

How does where you live affect life expectancy?   

Within the city of Syracuse, you can see differences in life expectancy across ZIP codes, and it follows a change in socioeconomic levels.

In the 13224 ZIP code – along the well-off neighborhoods of Syracuse’s East Side, and further east into the suburbs of DeWitt, Fayetteville and Manlius – life expectancy is 79.8 years of age, which is a little higher than state and national averages.

About 5 miles down the road is 13205, which has lower economic status and a host of other disadvantages noted below. The life expectancy in that ZIP code is 72.6 years. This strip of land along routes 11 and 81 runs from just south of downtown Syracuse to Nedrow.

It’s a massive difference, just 5 miles apart.

You can compare levels of lead abatement in housing, the amount of environmental toxins, fatality from violence, economic disadvantages, access to food and health care, and many other factors. These things vary remarkably between the populations in ZIP codes that are very close to each other.

All of these things add up cumulatively to a shorter life expectancy.

As more of the population across demographic segments begins to face similar challenges, overall life expectancy will decline.   

Will the COVID-19 pandemic shorten life expectancy?

In terms of the broad impact on overall life expectancy across the U.S., it will probably have a negligible effect, because the severest rates of mortality appear in those who are older than  average life expectancy.

However, this is not true among some subgroups.

For example, we are already seeing higher death rates among the African American and Latino communities. Some early research predicts life expectancy to drop further in these communities due to the pandemic.

This is related to fundamental inequities that show themselves in higher underlying chronic illness rates, which are risk factors for death from COVID-19, and further highlights inequity as a root cause of decreasing life expectancy.

Upstate Health Magazine

This article appears in the winter 2021 issue of Upstate Health magazine

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