Story at a glance

  • Young and middle-aged adults in the U.S. are dying at an alarming rate, and it’s caused the national life expectancy to decline for a third year in a row, according to a new study.
  • The authors of the study say no one single cause is behind the increasing prevalence of death in working-age Americans, but significant factors include drug overdoses, suicides and diseases related to addiction and obesity.
  • A sizable chunk of these premature deaths appeared to cluster in areas struck by social and economic hardships in recent decades. Stresses like unemployment, lack of health insurance, loneliness or despair can lead to chronic stress and other conditions that can converge to make illness and premature death more likely, say the authors.

For the last three years, life expectancy in the United States, the richest nation on Earth, has declined. This decline in life expectancy is being driven by rising death rates in young and middle-aged Americans, according to a new study. These troubling trends place the U.S. in stark contrast to every other developed nation in the world, The Washington Post reports.

The study, which analyzed six decades of mortality data, found that adults between the ages of 25 and 64 are increasingly dying from drug overdoses, suicides and diseases related to addiction and obesity. From 2010 to 2017, the biggest spike in death rates was seen in young adults between the ages of 25 and 34, with a 29 percent jump. Overall, the death rate for working-age Americans rose 6 percent from 2010 to 2017. 

“It’s supposed to be going down, as it is in other countries,” the lead author of the report, Steven H. Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, told the Post. “The fact that that number is climbing, there’s something terribly wrong.”

Between 1959 and 2016, U.S. life expectancy increased from 69.9 years to 78.9 years, but in 2014 it started to decrease. In 2017, the average American lifespan fell to 78.6 years. 

Life expectancy in the U.S. started lagging behind that of other wealthy countries in 1998, and that gap has continued to increase, known to experts as America’s “health disadvantage.” 

Woolf told the Post that the report doesn’t identify a single cause for the increasing death rate among young adults and middle-aged Americans. The national opioid and obesity epidemics are both significant parts of the story, but neither amount to a smoking gun.

But the geographic pattern of the mounting excess of American death may offer additional clues. Of the 33,307 extra deaths that the study’s authors say wouldn’t have occurred without the 6 percent rise in mortality among young and middle-aged adults, nearly one third met their end in just four states. 

Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana contributed this outsized portion of the premature deaths, despite making up less than 11 percent of the U.S. population. Over the last several decades, these states have hemorrhaged jobs and seen their populations decline as industries like manufacturing, steel and coal moved away or disappeared. 

These changes have led to gutted institutions and an increasingly threadbare social fabric that could add up to chronic stress for residents, the researchers told the Los Angeles Times. And that stress might be behind some of the deaths in the form of addiction to drugs and alcohol, suicide or high blood pressure. 

“There’s something more fundamental about how people are feeling at some level — whether it’s economic, whether it’s stress, whether it’s deterioration of family,” Ellen Meara, a professor at the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, told the Post. “People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”

Published on Nov 26, 2019