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Researchers say economic disparity, obesity, opioids, and suicide are all factors in the United States’ relatively low life expectancy rate. Getty Images
  • The average life expectancy rate in the United States has declined slightly the past three years to 78.6 years old.
  • The average is five years lower than Japan or Switzerland.
  • The rate is also lower than Cuba and Slovenia’s average life expectancy.
  • Experts say economic disparity is a chief reason for the U.S. decline.
  • Experts add that the opioid epidemic, a rising suicide rate, and the obesity crisis are also factors.

Life expectancy rates around the world have been steadily rising in recent years.

However, in the United States, it’s a different story.

Over the past three years, life expectancy has declined to 78.6 years old, one of the lowest rates among developed nations.

Experts say this isn’t good enough.

“The U.S. continues to have lower life expectancy compared to other developed countries, which is concerning. We spend more per capita GDP on healthcare than any other country, yet we don’t receive the anticipated health benefits from such spending,” Dr. Ky Stoltzfus, an assistant professor in the departments of Internal Medicine and Population Health at the University of Kansas Medical Center, told Healthline.

“There are significant discrepancies in health outcomes among different segments of the U.S. population and between different states, which should be of concern to any policy maker or healthcare professional,” Stoltzfus added.

In 2017, a baby born in the United States was expected to live for roughly the same amount of time as one born in the Czech Republic. That’s about five years less than babies born in Japan and Switzerland, which have a life expectancy of 84.

A U.S. baby can also expect to live a shorter life than one born in countries such as Cuba and Slovenia.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 36 countries, most of which are considered developed with high-income economies.

Among this group, the United States ranked 28 out of 36 for life expectancy, sitting just ahead of Poland, Turkey, and Estonia.

Among this group, the United States also has a higher prevalence of obesity and a higher infant mortality rate.

A report into the United States’ health rankings notes that even the U.S. states that scored the best in each of these categories still rank among the lowest of OECD nations.

Stoltzfus said there are likely several reasons other developed nations with similar economic strength are performing better than the United States.

“When you examine OECD countries that perform well in mortality rates, infant mortality, and other health outcomes, they have strong social support systems, more equitably distributed healthcare, and concerted efforts at keeping their populations healthy,” he said.

When it comes to infant mortality, the United States experiences on average 5.9 deaths per 1,000 live infant births, compared with an average of 3.9 deaths per 1,000 live births among OECD nations.

Iceland has just 0.7 deaths per 1,000 live births. The United States ranks 33rd out of 36 in this area, ahead of only Mexico, Turkey, and Chile.

The U.S. state with the highest level of infant mortality, Mississippi, experiences 8.9 deaths per 1,000 live births, more than twice the OECD average.

Experts say income disparity across the country is likely contributing to declining life expectancy rates.

“There is a pretty dramatic gradient in life expectancy and other health outcomes across social factors, such as income and race. In order to improve the life expectancy for the U.S. as a whole, we need to raise the life expectancy for those at the lowest end of the spectrum,” Michelle Odden, PhD, an associate professor in the Division of Epidemiology at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, told Healthline.

“We need to better understand the factors that explain the disparity in life expectancy between the rich and the poor,” she explained. “We know some of this is due to access to care and lack of health insurance among many poor Americans.”

“Another factor is unequal environments, which can range from exposure to pollutants (for example living near a freeway) to lack of healthy food choices (for example food deserts),” she added. “These are complex problems and will require multifactorial solutions.”

The opioid epidemic and suicides have both been identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as contributing factors to declining life expectancy rates.

In 2017, deaths from drug overdoses increased by nearly 10 percent from the previous year, with more than 70,000 people dying because of them. The rate of drug overdose deaths from opioids increased 45 percent between 2016 and 2017.

Suicide rates have also been steadily rising, with suicide ranked as the 10th leading cause of death in the United States every year since 2008.

It’s a problem Stoltzfus argues needs more attention.

“Significant gaps in mental healthcare continue to be problematic even in 2019,” he said. “We cannot ignore the fact that mental health has effects on physical health. Fortunately, some of the stigma of mental health is lessening. But the long-term effects of childhood trauma, addiction, and under-treated mental health problems will continue to affect our health outcomes unless we address these issues more comprehensively.”

Among the key reasons for declining life expectancy rates across the country is a problem impacting nearly a third of the population in the United States: obesity.

The U.S. prevalence of obesity has increased over the past four decades. Of the 31 OECD countries who have data on obesity available, the United States ranks last.

“If I were to identify a single risk factor that has had the greatest impact on premature death it would be obesity. Unfortunately, many of the conveniences of modern society have essentially engineered physical activity out of our lives,” Odden told Healthline.

Stoltzfus agrees.

“We need to do more to address the rising rates of obesity in our country. We haven’t had an honest conversation about the fundamental reasons for it and what we can do to stem the tide,” he said.

He argues one only needs to look in disparities across states to see the importance of sound public policy.

“The rates of obesity, drug deaths, suicide, and cardiovascular deaths all continue to rise. While the reasons for this are multifactorial and complex, all are potentially influenced by public policy. High-quality education, access to healthcare, and measures to address poverty have an impact on long-term health outcomes,” Stoltzfus said.

“It should be no surprise that educating a child, keeping her out of poverty, and having a robust healthcare system available to that individual throughout her lifetime will improve her life expectancy,” he added.

Despite a significant disparity across states and a lower life expectancy across the country than is ideal, Stoltzfus is hopeful policy makers will make decisions that don’t further divide the country down racial and economic lines.

“If we can address underlying reasons for poverty, make efforts to lower our obesity rates, improve education for all segments of society, and improve access to healthcare in an equitable fashion, then I remain hopeful that we’ll see an improvement in the life expectancy of all Americans,” he said.

“I hope that we do not become a country more divided and disparate in health outcomes based on race, income, education level, and geography,” he added.