Overview of Why Life Expectancy Is Falling in the United States: What Seniors Need to Know

If you are a senior man or woman, or if you are the adult child of a senior, you likely pay attention to trends related to health and wellness. One alarming trend is the falling life expectancy rate in the United States at this time. Harvard Medical School reports:

With rare exceptions, life expectancy has been on the rise in the U.S.: it was 47 years in 1900, 68 years in 1950, and by 2019 it had risen to nearly 79 years. But it fell to 77 in 2020 and dropped to just over 76 in 2021. 

In this article, we present seniors and their families – as well as others – an overview of why life expectancy is falling in the United States at this juncture in history.

Specific Life Expectancy Trends in the U.S.A.

Life expectancy in the United States is falling and has decreased for three consecutive years. This trend has been linked to numerous factors, including poverty, lack of access to healthcare, chronic diseases, and increased deaths due to drug overdoses and suicides. These factors are discussed more fully later in this article.

The most recent data indicates that life expectancy in the United States fell by one-tenth of a percent a year in the past several years to 78.8 years. This is the lowest since 2006. Consequently, newborns in 2019 are expected to live an average of 4.2 months less than those born just two years previously. The decline starkly contrasts with other developed countries where life expectancy is either rising or stable.

Life Expectancy and Vulnerable Populations in the United States

The negative life expectancy trend particularly worries certain vulnerable populations disproportionately affected by worsening health outcomes across multiple measures. These vulnerable populations include:

  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • Rural Americans
  • Individuals experiencing poverty or homelessness

Being at risk for social disadvantage can have long-term consequences on health and increase the likelihood of early mortality due to higher exposure to harm and increased stress levels, which can cause physical illnesses over time.

Harvard Medical School has presented some specific data regarding life expectancy issues and vulnerable populations in the United States:

  • Life expectancy for American Indian and Alaska Native populations fell more than other ethnic groups; at 65.2 years, the latest life expectancy estimates for these groups are similar to that of the U.S. population in 1944.
  • Life expectancy for white Americans (76.4 years) is longer than that of Black Americans (70.8 years); this gap had narrowed until this most recent report.
  • For Asian Americans, life expectancy (83.5 years) remains the longest among ethnic groups for which data is collected. Hispanic Americans had the next longest life expectancy, at 77.7 years.
  • The life expectancy of 79.1 years and 73.2 years for women and men reflects a long-apparent significant gap.

Lifestyle Issues and Life Expectancy Trends

Many Americans now face more threats from unhealthy lifestyles than ever in recent history. This has resulted in a rise in chronic diseases that include:

  • Obesity
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes

These medical conditions significantly reduce life expectancy if left untreated or unmanaged. With increasing pressure on family incomes, many people have also been forced to cut back on buying healthy foods instead of opting for cheaper processed alternatives with poorer nutritional content. This contributes to further deterioration in overall well-being.

Impact of Drug Overdoses on Overall Life Expectancy in the United States

In addition to these compounded pressures on public health, there has been an unprecedented spike in deaths caused by drug overdoses. These overdoses account for the greatest reduction in U.S. life expectancy since World War II, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 70,000 people died from overdose deaths involving opioids alone in 2020, a shocking eight-fold increase since 1999, according to the C.D.C. These numbers spiked upwards even further in subsequent years. Remember that alcohol abuse also contributes heavily to the life expectancy rate in the United States. According to a Lancet Public Health Journal report, alcohol-related death rates nearly doubled between 1999 and 2017.

Closer Look at Opioid Overdoses and Their Impact on Life Expectancy

There are three additional points about opioid overdoses and life expectancy in the United States that warrant examination.

  • Opioid overdoses have become a major public health crisis in the United States, leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths yearly. According to the C.D.C., opioids were involved in more than 75 percent of drug overdoses in 2020. This is a staggering number that demonstrates these drugs’ powerful nature.
  • In addition to the sheer number of opioid-related deaths, life expectancy in the U.S. has been declining since 2014 – largely due to drug overdoses. The C.D.C. estimates that opioid-related overdoses are responsible for approximately two-thirds of this decline in life expectancy and a significant portion of disability-adjusted life years lost from opioid overdose death rates alone.
  • The effects of opioid overdoses extend beyond death and lower life expectancy rates. For example, there is also an economic toll associated with opioid misuse and abuse in the United States. The C.D.C. estimates that prescription opioids cost American taxpayers $78 billion annually through medical expenses, lost productivity at work, addiction treatment costs, criminal justice costs, and other related issues.

Suicide Rates and Life Expectancy in the United States

Finally, suicide rates have reached their highest levels since World War II, with 453 out of every 100,000 Americans taking their own lives in 2018, according to the National Center for Health Statistics figures. Mental illness has been identified as an important factor driving this sharp rise. Still, there is no single explanation as complex issues such as alienation or societal pressures also play significant roles in the suicide rate.

Suicide has been a major public health issue in the United States for some time, claiming over 47,000 lives each year. The World Health Organization estimates that the global rate of suicide is one of the leading causes of death among 15-to-29-year-olds. In recent years, the rate of suicide has been on the rise in the United States and is now considered an epidemic by some experts. 

In conclusion, proactive policies need to be implemented more fully to address the continuing decline in the life expectancy rate in the United States. The approach needs to be multifaceted due to the different drivers underpinning the decline in U.S. life expectancy over the past several years.