Life expectancy in the U.S. has fallen for the second year in a row, thanks to a combination of drug and alcohol use and suicides, according to a new report released Wednesday.
The drop was particularly large among middle-age white Americans and those living in rural communities, experts said in a report in the BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal.
The report complements one released in December from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that also found U.S. life expectancy was down for the second straight year.
“We are seeing an alarming increase in deaths from substance abuse and despair,” said Steven Woolf at Virginia Commonwealth University, a co-author of the latest report. The idea of the “American Dream” is increasingly out of reach as social mobility declines and fewer children face a better future than their parents, he said.
In 2016, life expectancy in the U.S. was 78.6 years, a decrease of 0.1 years from 2015, according to the report, which cites data from the World Bank. Data from 2017 has yet to be calculated.
“It may not sound like much, but the alarming story is not the amount of the decrease but that the increase has ended,” he said.
In 1960, the U.S. had the highest life expectancy in the world. It’s lost ground to other industrialized nations ever since.
Life expectancy in the U.S. is now 1.5 years lower than a group of 35 nations known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom among others.
The report found Americans have poorer health than other nations in many areas, including birth outcomes, injuries, homicides, adolescent pregnancy, HIV/AIDS, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Americans also engage in unhealthy or risky behaviors — such as high calorie intake, drug abuse, and firearm ownership — live in cities designed for cars rather than pedestrians or cyclists, have weaker social welfare supports and lack universal health insurance.
“The consequences of these choices are dire: not only more deaths and illness, but also escalating health care costs, a sicker workforce, and a less competitive economy. Future generations may pay the greatest price,” the report concludes.
The drop in life expectancy is due to more than the opioid crisis, cited as a main cause in the CDC report last year, Woolf said.
“It’s a larger issue, involving addiction to opioids but also fatal overdoses from other drugs,” he said. More importantly, he said it’s accompanied by a dramatic surge in deaths from alcohol abuse and an increase in the suicide rate.
By far, the report found it’s a rural issue more than an urban one. “The problem is concentrated in rural, largely white counties that have often struggled for many years with stagnant wages, unemployment, poverty and the loss of major industries that fueled local economies,” Woolf said.
As for what to do about it, he said that “the root causes argue for policy solutions, especially those directed at strengthening the middle class that are not getting sufficiently prioritized by elected officials.”