Dying Is In Vogue: Americans’ Life Expectancies Dropping


Each week, Death by Science gets on its hands and knees and crawls around, searching the dark world of science and technology. Often terrifying, sometimes humbling, our discoveries will make you run to the nearest 7-11 and stock up on canned goods and doomsday porn. This week, we found a study showing that in many places in America, people are starting to die younger.

Move over sexting, Kardashians and JNCO jeans. America’s got a hot new trend: dying young!

A recently completed study conducted by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and published in the online journal Population Health Metrics found that in hundreds of U.S. counties, average life expectancy rates are falling. The national average is at an all-time high, yet certain areas are bucking the trend and people are dying like it’s 1959.

In 2007, life expectancy at birth for an average American man was 75.6 years. A woman’s life expectancy was a little over five years longer because they just deserve it, okay?

Before you start drinking grain alcohol and running in traffic to celebrate, that only makes us 37th in the international longevity contest.

Maltese are going to dance on our graves.

The study points out that the U.S. spends more per capita on health care than any other nation in the world. By tracking the life expectancies of the top ten countries, researchers found that America is still not keeping up with the elite. Some American counties even charted life expectancy rates going a full 50 years slower than the international pace.

What’s alarming is that the number of counties where life expectancy rates slowed or reversed has been growing at a rapid clip since 1999. We all know that the ’00s sucked, but in some areas of the country this crappy decade was literally killing people.

Where are these lagging American counties, you ask? You probably didn’t ask, but rather assumed they were mostly in the South. You should feel like a prejudiced, big city elitist who puts down the latest issue of the New Yorker only to grate fair trade cheese on locally harvested cauliflower while making gross generalizations about large swaths of people.

You, however, would be partly right. (You’re still an elitist.)

Geographically, the lowest life expectancies for both sexes were in counties in Appalachia and the Deep South, extending across northern Texas.

Between 1999 and 2007, life expectancy for women fell by nearly 2 years in Madison County (the one in Mississippi, not the one with the bridges and the bathtub sex; that’s in Iowa) and in Hughes and Okfuskee counties in Oklahoma. Men’s longevity shrunk by more than 2 years in Kentucky’s Perry County and again in Mississippi’s Madison County.

Yet there are places just a couple hours from these counties where life expectancy rose dramatically since 1999. To have such stark differences within the same country is very American. Just like some places have really good barbeque; there are areas where people are just awesome at dying. Hey, do you think the two could be related?

The extent of geographic inequality is substantially larger in the US than in the UK, Canada, or Japan… Compared with Canada and the UK, the US has many more widespread disparities affecting a much larger fraction of counties.

While it’s easy to dismiss this disparity as just picking nits, 953 of the nation’s 3,100 counties experienced a drop or stagnation in life expectancy for either men or women. Living shorter is colorblind as well, with race not playing a noticeable role:

The pattern of life expectancy performance versus the international frontier for white Americans is similar to all races combined, reinforcing the point that poor relative performance of the US is not simply due to racial disparities.

We talked to Dr. Ali Mokdad at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and he was concerned with what these numbers mean for the U.S.

“Take a country like Australia. It also has a nation of immigrants. It also is a relatively young country. It has similar socioeconomic characteristics. It has an obesity problem, and yet it has continued to improve in life expectancy and remains one of the healthiest nations in the world.” He continued, “We were ahead of Australia in life expectancy, and Australia caught up and surpassed us.”

The researchers concluded that these areas of high mortality rates are connected to preventable causes rather than an overarching issue with health care. These people are dying from obesity-related conditions as well as alcohol and tobacco consumption.

In other words, having fun.

When asked if this means that large measures, like the Obama administration’s health care bill, are futile, Dr. Mokdad disagreed. “We spend a lot of money on health care, but we’re not necessarily spending money effectively. We did studies this year that looked at how we are treating high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes. We found that most of the people who have these conditions are not being effectively treated.”

Next time you test for high blood pressure and your doctor recommends an Arby’s Ultimate Angus hoagie, you may want to get a second opinion.

Dr. Mokdad recommends incentive programs rather than merely taxing and banning bad things. For example, if you collect 90,000 Marlboro Miles, you can redeem them for fantastic prizes such as an authentic Marlboro travel duffel or a neon Marlboro bar sign that will make you the envy of all your friends!

Actually, the programs he recommends are quite different. “We know, for example, that when incentive programs have been used on a large scale in massive countries, such as India, they can have a huge impact. Women in India have been paid to deliver their children with the help of health care workers, and the program lowered the rate of infant deaths.”

They don’t call them “preventable” deaths for nothing. If parts of the country are going to turn things around and start living as long as any citizen of a prosperous, industrialized nation should, behavioral changes are absolutely essential. Just as long as Jamie Oliver isn’t involved. That limey spaz is teaching American children to hate chicken nuggets.

[Stay strong, kids!]