Researchers attribute lower U.S. life expectancy to the absence of universal healthcare, poverty levels, racial and economic segregation, and social isolation, among other issues.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, life expectancy worldwide dropped precipitously as millions fell victim to the virus, and millions more had reduced access to healthcare. In 2021, life expectancy in most wealthy countries had returned to pre-COVID normalcy with the introduction of vaccines, but not in the U.S. In fact, U.S. life expectancy didn’t just stay the same as it was during the height of the pandemic; it dropped yet again, leading many health and policy experts to revisit a largely ignored research study published nearly a decade ago that warned of significant health deficits in the U.S. compared to peer nations.
According to NPR, there was a decrease in the U.S. life expectancy as a whole—down to 76 years—and one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the country’s history. Pediatric and adolescent mortality rates increased as well, prompting one researcher to say that this is the first time in his career that he’s seen an increase in youth mortality. The research is clear: Americans die at younger ages than their peers in other comparable countries.
Ten years ago, when a group of National Institutes of Health researchers published a study titled “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health,” they expected their work to prompt policy and healthcare change in the U.S. before things got worse, but they were wrong. The study, which showed that U.S. life expectancy isn’t just a demographic problem, but a widespread American problem, highlighted many causes of this decrease in life expectancy. The stereotype that Americans are obese and sedentary and that this causes the country’s overall health problems were largely inaccurate.
Even Americans with healthy behaviors have higher disease rates and die at younger ages than their peers in other countries. In general, Americans eat more calories and lead more sedentary lifestyles, but that’s primarily due to a lack of access to affordable healthy foods and cities designed around cars rather than pedestrians. Researchers also attributed lower U.S. life expectancy to the absence of universal healthcare, poverty levels, racial and economic segregation, and social isolation, among other issues.
Most of the researchers involved in the project expected more to come of the work in terms of policy and healthcare change, as well as further research. But the NIH did little to advertise the research, and government agencies did even less to act on the data presented in the study. The public seemed largely uninterested, though researchers attribute this to a kind of resignation; Americans are aware that they are less healthy than their counterparts around the globe but feel it is beyond their power to do anything about it.
The Department of Health and Human Services secretary commented on the U.S. life expectancy, saying that, while they were making strides where possible, they couldn’t override state laws that might be affecting mortality rates. Gun violence and mental illness were two areas he touched on that affect Americans significantly more than their peers in other countries. While the statistics can feel overwhelming, there’s hope for a better future for Americans; if we all work together to push for better healthcare and healthier systems, we can work toward more nutritious, longer lives for all Americans.