Dying to Know: Why Is American Life Expectancy Decreasing?

The shadow of a cemetery worker is cast on reclaimed gravestones

The shadow of a cemetery worker is cast on reclaimed gravestones | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Thanks to modern medicine and science, we have a good idea as to how to lengthen life expectancy. The modern American, on average, lives long past 70 years. Compare that to average expectancies of previous generations, and one thing becomes clear: We’re dying later in life. Living a long, healthy life does require some sacrifice, however. You need to exercise, eat properly, and avoid certain vices like smoking or excessive drinking. If you can manage, those healthy habits should keep you from dying for quite some time.

Unfortunately, we seem to have hit a roadblock. Though we’ve been pushing life expectancy back for the average American for decades, the numbers show a recent reversal. Americans are dying younger and in higher numbers. Just what in the hell is going on?

A new report, released by the Society of Actuaries, proves it. According to this study, the typical 65-year old American male will live to see their 85th birthday. For females, the average is just shy of 88. What makes that remarkable is those outcomes are worse than they were a year ago. Death is arriving earlier for the average American and depending on your particular demographic, it might get uglier.

You’ve probably read something about this previously. A famous report came out earlier this year showing middle-class Caucasians are dying faster and younger than ever before. The main causes? Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and suicide. It’s a complex set of factors, but is overall part of the trend the data is showing.

America’s dying young

Glass prescription bottle with pills

Glass prescription bottle with pills | iStock.com/Jeng_Niamwhan

These results from the Society of Actuaries all but confirms a prior report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For the third straight year, according to federal data, the average life span didn’t increase. Drugs and alcohol abuse are a part of it. Suicide is a part of it. But it’s all still rather confounding. Given all that we know, and all the tools that we have at our disposal, how can we be reversing course?

There isn’t an easy answer. We’ve identified some of the causes, but the problems run much deeper.

You can start by looking at economic trends. A huge number of American households are still struggling in a post-Great Recession world, and with economic strife comes a host of problems. This can play into drug abuse and suicide. It can also lead to higher instances of crime, as people become desperate enough to take chances.

And it can take a toll on our physical health as well. Stress and a lack of sleep tied into these issues compounds risk for stroke and heart attack. The obesity crisis isn’t letting up, either. We keep packing on weight, forgoing healthy diets, and don’t get enough exercise.

Fixing life expectancy

The entrance sign to a Las Vegas hospital

The entrance sign to a Las Vegas hospital | Bryan Steffy/Getty Images

If you dig further into the numbers, you see it’s not just older populations (Baby Boomers, for instance) causing life expectancies to stagnate. Millennials are a part of the problem, too. But interestingly enough, the issue does seem to be somewhat relegated to the white population. Lifespans for the Hispanic and black populations have actually gotten better during the same period.

The deep-rooted issue leading to premature deaths — the ones we can identify, anyway — have no easy fix. If you want to live as long as possible, your best bet is going to be making responsible decisions for yourself. That means sticking to a proper diet, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and getting enough exercise. Also, you need to make sure you get enough quality sleep — an issue that is just now starting to gain some attention.

This can be difficult to do. With jobs, families, hobbies, and a million other variables throwing our plans off track, living a healthy lifestyle can become a secondary goal. But with a little effort and planning, it can be done.