A study on mortality rates released on Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics showed that Americans could expect to live for 78.8 years in 2015, a decrease of 0.1 from the year before. The overall death rate increased 1.2 percent — that’s about 86,212 more deaths than those recorded in 2014.
Dr. Peter Muennig, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in an interview that the decline was a “uniquely American phenomenon” in comparison with other developed countries, like Japan or Sweden.“A 0.1 decrease is huge,” Dr. Muennig said. “Life expectancy increases, and that’s very consistent and predictable, so to see it decrease, that’s very alarming.”
What’s causing the decline? For researchers, the numbers reflect a culmination of problems: eight of the top 10 causes of death showed an increase in death rates, including those from heart disease, diabetes and kidney disease. Deaths from Alzheimer’s rose 15.7 percent, unintentional injuries rose 6.7 percent and suicide rose 2.3 percent.The infant mortality rate, often the marker researchers use to gauge the health of a population, rose slightly, but Dr. Jiaquan Xu, one of the authors of the study, said that the rise was not considered significant.Dr. Muennig said that popular theories for the cause of the decline, including an increase in obesity rates and an opiod epidemic, fail to explain a problem that feels broader.“If you actually dissect the data neither of those arguments hold,” he said. “This report slams it home that this is really a mystery.”Is there any positive news?Dr. Xu said that the study’s lone bright spot showed a decline in deaths from cancer, by 1.7 percent.“That’s the only part that’s good news,” he said.How does race play a factor in my life span?The study is further confirmation of a decline in health in different racial populations. Death rates among non-Hispanic black males rose 0.9, and 1 percent among non-Hispanic white males. Rates for non-Hispanic white females rose 1.6 percent.Rates for non-Hispanic black females, Hispanic males, and Hispanic females held steady from 2014 to 2015.Dr. Muennig said that a decline in the health of working class whites was a major contributor to the latest survey results. Life expectancy for whites has stagnated or dipped in recent years, fueled by vulnerability to drug and alcohol abuse, suicide and economic distress.“It’s not happening to black people,” Dr. Muennig said. “That group used to have a huge and growing disparity with whites, but that gap has radically narrowed.”AdvertisementContinue reading the main storyIn 2014, the life expectancy gap between black and white people closed to 3.4 years, the smallest on record.What about income?Thursday’s survey did not break people down by income or education level, but past research has shown that as the gap between the rich and poor in America widens, people of different income levels can expect to live for different lengths of time.In February, researchers at the Brookings Institution analyzed life expectancies for men who were among the top 10 percent of earners, and those who were among the bottom 10 percent. For men born in 1950, life expectancy was 14 years shorter than for those among the rich.Dr. Muennig said that researchers suspect that the strain of income inequality in the United States — and the stress that this causes — could be a major contributing factor to the uptick, but it has been hard to prove beyond one thread of research that studies how earned-income tax credits can help improve the health of people with low incomes.Does sex play a factor?Yes. According to the data, life expectancy for females remains consistently higher than it for males. In 2015, the difference in life expectancy between females and males increased to 4.9 years in 2015, up from 4.8 years in 2014.What do these numbers mean for the future?Dr. Xu said in an interview that the decline doesn’t necessarily show a trend, but that the numbers are cause for concern.“If a year from now if this situation continues,” Dr. Xu said, “it’s definitely a problem for public health.”Continue reading the main storyRELATED COVERAGEOpinion David LeonhardtThe American Dream, Quantified at Last DEC. 8, 2016White Americans Are Dying Younger as Drug and Alcohol Abuse Rises APRIL 20, 2016Black Americans See Gains in Life Expectancy MAY 8, 2016TRENDINGJohn Glenn, American Hero of the Space Age, Dies at 95‘They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals’Trump’s Labor Pick, Andrew Puzder, Is Critic of Minimum Wage IncreasesOn Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need ‘Safe Spaces’Contributing Op-Ed Writer: Trump Voters Are Feeling ItSouth Korea’s President Awaits Her Fate, Dejected, Sleepless and AloneOp-Ed Columnist: Trump: Madman of the YearThe Best Movies of 2016Trilobites: That Thing With Feathers Trapped in Amber? It Was a Dinosaur TailOp-Ed Columnist: The American Dream, Quantified at LastView More Trending Stories »What’s NextLoadi