Researchers announced late last year that U.S. life expectancy had fallen for a second year in a row in 2021, an unusual occurrence that has pushed the measure of life expectancy at birth down to 76.1 years. Last week, we learned that maternal mortality hit a new and unwelcome high last year, and that mortality rates for young people are rising, as well.
Noting that life expectancy in the U.S. is now lower than in Cuba and in Lebanon, NPR’s Selena Simmons-Duffin took a look this weekend at declining health measures in the U.S. “Across the lifespan, and across every demographic group, Americans die at younger ages than their counterparts in other wealthy nations,” she writes. “In a country that prides itself on scientific excellence and innovation, and spends an incredible amount of money on health care, the population keeps dying at younger and younger ages.”
How could this happen? Highlighting a study done a decade ago, titled “U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” Simmons-Duffin says that the cause is a uniquely American mix of factors, including but not limited to obesity, child poverty, racial segregation, access to guns, fatal car crashes, drug abuse and a lack of universal access to health care.
Experts say that while the recent plunge in life expectancy is driven in part by the upswing in deaths related to Covid-19, the long-term trends are more important. “If you add up the excess deaths that have occurred in the United States because of this unfolding problem, it dwarfs what happened during COVID-19, as horrible as COVID-19 was,” Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, told NPR. “We've lost many more Americans cumulatively because of this longer systemic issue. And if the systemic issue is unaddressed, it will continue to claim lives going forward.”