U.S. Life Expectancy Stagnant Since the 60s (Technically, It’s Down 0.4%); Obesity to Blame

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ObesitySince researchers began tracking life expectancy in the 60s, Americans have steadily been living longer and longer lives. Advancements in medication, technology, and an overall awareness of wanting to live a healthy lifestyle have played a role in that progress.

However, the American Cancer Society announced this week that for the first time since the 60s, life expectancy has halted at 77 years old. This pause in death rate and life expectancy has been steady from 2010 to 2013, according to findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

While researchers say it’s not a complete halt (i.e., no change at all), the rate during that three-year period dropped at an average of 0.4%, which is not what scientists would consider significant. It’s led many of them to look for answers as to why this is happening, given the continuing medical and technological advancements.

One of the lead authors on the study Ahmedin Jemal plainly said, “I didn’t expect the slowdown.” He believes the main reason for this slowdown is obesity and its prevalence in North American societies. Many studies have shown that the unfortunate reality is that most Americans are overweight or obese, which raises the risk for other diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and, of course, type 2 diabetes.

Jemal also points to smoking as another possible setback to explain why Americans aren’t living longer. Though the numbers are significantly down since the 60s, when up to 42% of Americans were smoking, the 18% still smoking today does have an impact on life expectancy. Smoking is still a leading cause of cancer and lung disease and high school students are smoking at higher rates than the national average.

However, Jemal is hopeful, referring to the higher life expectancies in countries such as Germany and Canada, whose populations collectively live into their 80s, and the fact that the U.S. life expectancy rate has come a long way from its 40s range in 1900.

Jemal believes America’s hope for improving lies in finding ways to take action against the poor habits it’s developed: “If we can improve smoking, obesity, physical activity, and diet, we can decrease the mortality rate.”

Other medical experts analyzing the study are not as hopeful. Gerontologist at the University of Southern California Eileen Crimmins simply argues, “Things are not getting better in the U.S.” That sentiment is echoed by David Ludwig, director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, who states, “We’re likely at the tipping point.”

The concern from some researchers likely stems from the fact that although there have been previous slowdowns in the average U.S. life expectancy rate, there has never been this type of plateau. Where Ludwig does agree with Jemal and other researchers is that the break in the tipping point is going to have to come from the American people themselves and not any kind of medical breakthrough: “Further improvements in life expectancy are going to have to depend upon transforming our lifestyle beyond what can be done by drugs.”

Sources for Today’s Article:
Miller, K., “We’re Not Living Any Longer in America and Here’s Why,” Yahoo! Health web site, October 28, 2015; https://www.yahoo.com/health/why-have-death-rates-leveled-off-in-the-us-154431321.html.
Friedman, L., “Americans have been living longer and healthier lives, until now,” Tech Insider web site, October 29, 2015; http://www.techinsider.io/american-lifespan-has-peaked-2015-10.