life expectancy decreased in many high-income nations, including us and uk
Photo: sylviebliss via Pixabay, CC0

After many decades of increases in life expectancy, a new study suggests that life expectancy has declined in high-income countries for the first time in decades. A study recently published in the British Medical Journal examined 18 different high-income countries including Australia, The UK, The United States, Sweden, Spain and Japan, and found that most of these countries saw a decrease in life expectancy between 2014 to 2015.

Declining Life Expectancies

In the 18 different countries that were examined only Norway, Denmark and Japan saw increases in life expectancy for both women and men across all years of life. The other fourteen high-income countries witnessed drops in life expectancy. The drops in life expectancy were of interest because of both the size of the decline and the number of countries the decline was witnessed in.

Life expectancy for both women and men decreased in 2016 down to 81.4 years and 76.4 years respectively. In the UK the expectations were 82.72 years and 79.04 years. Among the countries that saw increases in life expectancy, Australia saw an increase up to 85.5 years for women and 81.5 years for men, which is longer than their life expectancy was in 2010. Japanese people have one of the highest life expectancies out of any nation, with women having an average lifespan of 87.2 years and men an average of 81 years.

In the US the decline was centered around a group of younger people, those who are in their 20s and 30s. In the other countries, the declines were focused on people who were over 65 years of age. The authors of the study believe much of the decline in life expectancy in non-US countries was due to an abnormally intense flu season. The trend of decreasing life expectancy in these countries highlights some potential health care problems, says Domantas Jasilionis. Jasilionis, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute, explains that modern healthcare systems proved unable to grapple with the unexpectedly virile flu that hit in the years studied, which could “signal more profound problems”.

Opioids, Influenza, And Alzheimer’s

The authors of the study also explain that nervous system disorders and mental disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disease probably played a role in reducing life expectancy for those over 65 in non-Us countries. These diseases may be becoming more common as poor air quality and pollution have become larger problems.

As mentioned, the decline in life expectancy for the US was centered on people in their 20s and 30s. The authors of the study say that the opioid epidemic is one of the major reasons that life expectancy in the US has dropped. A second study supports the results of the first study and found that in the US there were increased death rates of people between 25-64 years of age at that these increased death rates held constant over all major ethnic groups.

The authors note that in 2016 there were approximately 115 deaths from opioid overdose every day, which further pushes the US lower on the life expectancy scale amongst high-income countries. The authors of the study explain the US’ position:

The USA now has the lowest life expectancy levels among high income developed countries, and Americans fare poorly across a broad set of ages, health conditions, and causes of death compared with their counterparts in these countries.

However, the second study, published on the same day, suggests that the problem could be more complicated and have more causes than just the opioid epidemic. The second study found that there were a variety of causes of increased death rates, some of which include alcoholism and suicides. Other factors leading to a shortened life expectancy include an increased mortality rate for lung diseases, heart diseases, and other organ diseases.

While previous studies have noted a spike in “despair related deaths” amongst middle-aged white people in the US, this new study suggests that the trend has branched out to include multiple ethnic and racial groups. These increases in death rates are canceling out many years of progress in bringing death rates for Hispanic and black adults down.

life expectancy decreased in many high-income nations, including us and uk

Photo: HalcyonMarine via Pixabay, CC0

The study also found that overall death rates were noticeably higher among men than among women. Despite this, there was a larger spike in suicides and drugs overdoses among women compared to the spike in men, which tracks with recent studies that suggest a growing health problem for women in the United States. Because of the results of these complex results the authors of the second study argue that there isn’t a single factor, like opioids, that can fully account for the decrease in life expectancy and the increase in mortality.

Systemic Changes?

While both studies are merely observational, and thus cannot account for possible cause, the two studies do suggests that the health care systems of the US and other high-income countries are struggling to address the systemic causes of degrading health.

Most of the countries which saw life expectancy declines in the 2014 to 2015 year ticked back up in the year between 2015 and 2016, seeing an increase that made up for the downturn. However, the UK and US continued to decline, possibly for the reasons mentioned above. While some of the countries on the list did manage to recover from the dip in life expectancy in the course of the past two years, Jasilionis worries that healthcare systems may not be equipped to handle emerging challenges such as new diseases and the rise of antimicrobial resistance. If countries can overcome these challenges to see life expectancy continue to rise will depend on being prepared and adaptable and able to overcome “unexpected health threats emerging that will require faster responses and more technological development.”

Jasilionis argues that more data is needed to create effective policies that can head off emerging health crises. Jasilionis says that more effort could be necessary to convince both national and international health agencies to invest in data collection systems that can create databases with information about long-term changes in longevity.

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