Life Expectancy In The U.S. Is Now Lower Than In Cuba Or Slovenia

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Economic disparity, rising suicide and drug overdose rates, and obesity are all factors in the drop in life expectancy.

Unlike most of the world’s countries, the United States is experiencing a decline in life expectancy, which now stands at 78.6 years — one of the lowest among developed nations, Healthline reported last year.

“The U.S. continues to have lower life expectancy compared to other developed countries, which is concerning. We spend more per capita GDP on healthcare than any other country, yet we don’t receive the anticipated health benefits from such spending,” Dr. Ky Stoltzfus, an assistant professor in the departments of Internal Medicine and Population Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center, told the publication.

Stoltzfus added that policy makers and healthcare professionals should be concerned over the “significant discrepancies in health outcomes among different segments of the U.S. population and between different states.”

Compared to other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — which is a group of 36 mostly developed nations with wealthy economies — the U.S. lags far behind in many categories related to overall population health.

Healthline reported that among this group of countries, “the United States ranked 28 out of 36 for life expectancy, sitting just ahead of Poland, Turkey, and Estonia,” and “also has a higher prevalence of obesity and a higher infant mortality rate.”

A baby born in the U.S. in 2017 was expected to live about the same length of time as a baby born in the Czech Republic; a shorter time than babies born in Cuba and Slovenia’ and about five years fewer than babies born in Japan and Switzerland, where life expectancy was 84 years.

Experts point to several factors underlying America’s decline, including economic disparities, increases in suicides and opioid deaths, and the country’s obesity epidemic.

“When you examine OECD countries that perform well in mortality rates, infant mortality, and other health outcomes, they have strong social support systems, more equitably distributed healthcare, and concerted efforts at keeping their populations healthy,” Stoltzfus told Healthline.

Michelle Odden, PhD, an associate professor in the Division of Epidemiology at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, agreed, telling the publication: “There is a pretty dramatic gradient in life expectancy and other health outcomes across social factors, such as income and race. In order to improve the life expectancy for the U.S. as a whole, we need to raise the life expectancy for those at the lowest end of the spectrum.”

She added that policy makers and healthcare professionals must seek to better understand the factors underlying such disparity in life expectancy between the upper- and lower-classes.

“We know some of this is due to access to care and lack of health insurance among many poor Americans,” Odden said. “Another factor is unequal environments, which can range from exposure to pollutants (for example living near a freeway) to lack of healthy food choices (for example food deserts). These are complex problems and will require multifactorial solutions.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has pointed to the opioid epidemic and suicide rates as factoring into the nation’s declining life expectancy.

Healthline noted that the rate of opioid overdose deaths increased by 45 percent between 2016 and 2017, while drug overdose deaths in general rose 10 percent over the same period.

Likewise, suicide deaths have been increasing each year since 2008, and suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

Stoltzfus said awareness of mental health issues and access to mental healthcare remain problems to be solved in the U.S.

“We cannot ignore the fact that mental health has effects on physical health,” he said, noting that even in 2019 there continued to be gaps in the system. “Fortunately, some of the stigma of mental health is lessening. But the long-term effects of childhood trauma, addiction, and under-treated mental health problems will continue to affect our health outcomes unless we address these issues more comprehensively.”

Another major factor in the decline of America’s overall health status is obesity, the experts told Healthline, which noted that “of the 31 OECD countries who have data on obesity available, the United States ranks last.”

“If I were to identify a single risk factor that has had the greatest impact on premature death it would be obesity. Unfortunately, many of the conveniences of modern society have essentially engineered physical activity out of our lives,” Odden said.

Stoltzfus agreed, saying: “The rates of obesity, drug deaths, suicide, and cardiovascular deaths all continue to rise. While the reasons for this are multifactorial and complex, all are potentially influenced by public policy. High-quality education, access to healthcare, and measures to address poverty have an impact on long-term health outcomes.”

All of these issues must be addressed if the U.S. hopes to achieve better healthcare and life expectancy outcomes for Americans, he said.

“If we can address underlying reasons for poverty, make efforts to lower our obesity rates, improve education for all segments of society, and improve access to healthcare in an equitable fashion, then I remain hopeful that we’ll see an improvement in the life expectancy of all Americans.”

Stoltzfus added: “I hope that we do not become a country more divided and disparate in health outcomes based on race, income, education level, and geography.”

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