Unsettling trends in American life expectancy | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Unsettling trends in American life expectancy

Jason Eberhart-Phillips

We Americans take it for granted that our health as a nation always is getting better.

We assume that the children in each generation can look forward to longer, healthier lives than their parents had. Recent life-extending advances in medicine surely are pushing the envelope of human life expectancy ever upward, right?

Not so, at least for a large segment of the U.S. population, says a new study that examined mortality statistics between 1961 and 1999 in every American county.

The study found that since 1983, life expectancy among men has actually fallen in 59 counties, representing 4 percent of the population. Among women, it has dropped in 963 counties, amounting to 19 percent of the population.

Between 1961 and 1983, life expectancy had not declined in any American county, and the differences in the average length of life among counties were small. But by 1999, the gaps in lifespan between the best- and worst-off counties had widened, up to 11 years for men and more than seven years for women, the study reported.

Reasons for the recent stagnation in life expectancy center on chronic diseases that are largely preventable, the researchers said. These include ailments related to obesity and tobacco, as well as conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure that respond well to early medical intervention.

What does this mean? This study, and others like it, suggest that predictions of dire consequences from America’s mounting obesity epidemic and our continued problems with smoking-related disease are coming home to roost.

As a nation, we aren’t as healthy today as we once were.

Another study, released last year, found that Americans now in their early to mid-50s report poorer health, more pain and more difficulty with everyday tasks than older Americans reported at their age. Today’s aging baby boomers have more chronic health conditions, more difficulty walking or doing other physical tasks, and more psychiatric problems than their parents’ generation had at the same stage in life, the study said.

What can be done to reverse this alarming trend? More health-care spending, more drugs and more medical technology may not be sufficient.

A better approach may be to address the root causes of America’s poor health and stagnant life expectancy, not just in hospitals and clinics, but also in the communities where people live, work and attend school. More efforts in creating environments that support healthy choices in diet, exercise and tobacco-free living will over time lead to healthier populations, longer lifespans and reduced health-care spending.

Today, El Dorado County and its surrounding communities enjoy some of the longest life expectancy in America. Males residing in this county will live, on average, nearly 80 years, while females can expect almost 85 years.

Life expectancy isn’t declining here – yet. But the shortened lifespans turning up in other parts of the country should motivate us to do everything possible today to ensure that our children will lead longer, healthier lives than we adults do now.

– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is the El Dorado County Health Officer. He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@edcgov.us.

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