Longevity is Becoming "Shortevity."

September 19, 2022

Longevity is Becoming "Shortevity."

May 29, 2023

"American exceptionalism" is baked into our public schools, cultural institutions, and—definitely in an election year—the political jargon we hear from those running for office. But, sometimes, you have to look at the underlying data and demographics to understand whether this exceptionalism is positive or negative.

One data point to consider is life expectancy which The Atlantic magazine recently described as "perhaps the most important statistic on the planet, synthesizing a country's scientific advances, policy errors, and social sins into a single number."

Perhaps you've noticed all the recent press revealing that the U.S. has seen a precipitous decline in life expectancy over the past few years, which started way before Covid. This decline is the largest we've seen since World War II. There's also a huge disparity across the states. On average, those who live in Hawaii live till nearly 81 years old, but those in much of the American south barely make it to 70. Overall, U.S life expectancy has declined from 79 in 2019 to 76 in 2021. Also, the drop among men was 30% more severe than among women.

But, of course, the U.S. has a higher life expectancy than other countries, right? It's hard to imagine people living longer in places like Cuba, Croatia, or Chile. Think again, as Americans live shorter lives than all three places.

While Covid represented about half of the American decline in life expectancy, there are a number of other factors—overdoses, suicide, cardiovascular diseases, obesity, gun violence—that have influenced why the U.S. isn't seeing the kind of gains in longevity we see in Japan, Norway, and Australia over the past decade. Some countries like Spain and Canada even saw an increase in life expectancy last year due to widespread vaccination and strong public health measures.

At this point, the U.S. has lower life expectancy than Thailand, Uruguay, Turkey, and nearly 60 other countries. Even China has two years better life expectancy than the U.S.! And, for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, their life expectancy in the U.S. is now behind the average in Afghanistan and Sudan. This is not "American exceptionalism," at least in the way we want it to be.

Maybe we need a warning label when people consider immigrating to the U.S. (which isn't easy due to our American exceptionalism): "Beware of your health by moving to America."

Here's one more statistic that is staggering. For various reasons, foreign-born Americans live much longer than native-born Americans—seven years longer for men and 6.2 years longer for women. Immigration alone accounted for roughly half of America's total life expectancy gains from 2007 to 2017. Isn't it ironic that relaxing immigration might help the U.S. compete more effectively on the world stage regarding how long we live?

Yes, our shiny appliances and material wealth attract people from all over the world who seek the land of opportunity, But somehow, those of us who were born here have become couch potatoes.

Is it time for a national health elder corps of retired, healthy Americans who can infiltrate older communities (especially in marginalized neighborhoods) and teach them better nutrition, movement, and psycho-hygiene practices?

What do you think? How can we improve American health and longevity?

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