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Life Expectancy Declines in the United States

 A man runs at Pier A Park in Hoboken, New Jersey, Jan. 15, 2014. (AP Photo)
A man runs at Pier A Park in Hoboken, New Jersey, Jan. 15, 2014. (AP Photo)
Life Expectancy Decline in the United States
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Life expectancy rates in the United States have been increasing for most of the past 60 years. But a new study has confirmed changes.

It found that U.S. life expectancy rates decreased for three years in a row after 2014. The main cause appears to be higher rates of death among middle-aged Americans.

A report on the study appeared last week in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association.

The report notes that, among working-age Americans, death rates for all causes increased between 2010 and 2017. The main reasons were drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and organ system diseases, such as diabetes.

An American problem

Doctor Steven Woolf helped to prepare the report. He is director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Woolf said, “There has been an increase in death rates among working age Americans. This is an emergent crisis. And it is a uniquely American problem since it is not seen in other countries. Something about life in America is responsible.”

The rising rates of midlife mortality hit some areas of the country harder than others, the report said. Increases were highest in northern New England and the Ohio Valley.

Economic hardship and the resulting despair, a sense of hopelessness, may be to blame, Woolf said. “While it’s a little difficult to place the blame on despair directly, the living conditions causing despair are leading to other problems,” he explained. “For example, if you live in an economically distressed community where income is flat and it’s hard to find jobs, that can lead to chronic stress, which is harmful to health.”

Woolf noted that other high income countries do not have the problem of increasing mortality rates in middle age. He added this might be because “in other countries there are more support systems for people who fall on hard times. In America, families are left to their own devices to try to get by.”

Information from the study came from the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Mortality Database for 1959 to 2017. The researchers also examined medical literature for studies of U.S. life expectancy and mortality rates.

Based on the researchers’ findings, life expectancy increased by almost 10 years, from 69.9 to 78.9 years, during that period. But they found that rates had been falling since 2014.

Worrying Trends

“The current problems we are seeing are decades in the making,” Woolf said. “We used to have the highest life expectancy in the world. The pace at which life expectancy was increasing in the U.S. started to fall off relative to other countries in the (19)80s.”

Dr. John Rowe is a professor at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City.

The new findings provide evidence of some worrying trends. “It is depressing,” he said, “but I don’t think it’s much of a surprise.” He noted the problem of opioids in the United States, saying that "250,000 Americans have overdosed and died" after taking the drugs.

What is unusual is that the decrease in life expectancy is not the same for all age groups. “This is really evidence that mortality rates are increasing only in middle age while they’re continuing to decline in children, adolescents and people over 65,” he said.

I'm Anna Matteo.

The Reuters news agency reported this story. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

in a row – expression one after another

overdose – n. the act of taking too much of something, such as a drug

emeritus – n. someone retired from a job but who is permitted to hold an honorary position

emergent - adj. newly created or noticed and growing in strength or popularity; becoming widely known or established

New England -- n. a northeastern area of the United States comprising the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

income – n. earnings

stress – n. pressure or tension

decade - n. a period of 10 years

trend – n. a general movement

adolescent - n. a young person who is developing into an adult