For the first time since 1993, overall life expectancy in the U.S. has dropped, particularly among people under 65. The death rate has climbed for the first time in a decade, increasing 1.2 percent, as the life expectancy rate decreased 0.1 percent.
The figures are from a study released on December 8 by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), and the numbers are a source of concern for experts. The fact that Americans lived an average of 78.8 years in 2015 – 36.5 days less than in 2014 – has prompted scientists to search for answers, but so far, the exact reasons for what may or may not prove to be a continuing trend have been somewhat unclear.
A rise in eight of the 10 leading causes of death in America has been a significant contributing factor to the numbers.
“Most notably, the overall death rate for Americans increased because mortality from heart disease and stroke increased after declining for years. Deaths were also up from Alzheimer's disease, respiratory disease, kidney disease and diabetes. More Americans also died from unintentional injuries and suicide. In all, the decline was driven by increases in deaths from eight of the top 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.”
The only good news in the report was the fact that cancer deaths dropped by 1.7 percent.
But the question remains: Why are life expectancy rates dropping in America, when such declines are considered rare among developed nations? Why are we experiencing this “uniquely American phenomenon,” as one expert put it, compared to other countries – even if it is a “one-off” and not indicative of a general trend?
In fact, the preliminary findings for 2016 do not appear to indicate a continuing increase in mortality rates, but no one will know for sure until all the data is in.
Even if the 2015 statistics prove to be a mere one-year “bump,” there is still cause for concern, according to the experts.
Demographer Philip Morgan told NPR, "This is a big deal. There's not a better indicator of well-being than life expectancy. The fact that it's leveling off in the U.S. is a striking finding."
Decreases in life expectancy have only been seen a few times over the past half century. The 1993 spike in death rates was attributed to AIDS, homicides and other factors.
Some believe that there may be underlying economic factors at play in the current scenario. For instance, the increase in drug use and suicides could be the result of despair over the state of the economy.
Duke University sociologist Irma Elo said, "Clearly, that could be related to the economic circumstances that many Americans have experienced in the last eight years, or so, since the recession.”
Although the NCHS reports do not break down death rates in terms of income level, there have been studies indicating that there is indeed a correlation between income level and longevity.
A recent Brookings Institute report found that those among the top 10 percent of income earners born in 1950 lived an average of 14 years longer than those in the bottom 10 percent.
This year’s report may prove to be a one-off fluke, but with an increasingly widening income gap, combined with a decline in the quality of the American healthcare system, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see the trend continue.