Statistics on longevity in the United States have indicated an increase in expected life span that began in the 1960s and rose steadily until 2000. Now, newer statistics, gleaned from a study conducted over an extensive period of time, reveals that not all Americans can expect an extended life and still others are facing death at an earlier age than their counterparts in other parts of the country.

life expectancyThe study, conducted by Harvard School of Public Health and University of Washington researchers, indicates a decline in the life-span for 4% of American men and 19% of American women. Where there is no decline in life expectancy apparent, the life expectancy rate has stalled, neither declining or increasing.

Researchers point to a long-held view that inequalities in the US healthcare system can be tolerated as long as the health of the nation in general is improving This study shows that not everyone is improving and that in some areas, life expectancy is actually shorter than it was in the recent past.

The research team used National Center for Health Statistics’ mortality data and US Census Bureau data for 1959 through 2001. The researchers analyzed their data on a county-by-county basis, making this the first to explore mortality per county over such an extensive period of time.

The areas that show the greatest decline in longevity are Appalachia, the Mississippi River Valley, the Deep South, the southern part of the Midwest, and Texas.

These areas of life expectancy decline represent a large segment of the population that lives in economically depressed areas while, at the other end of the spectrum, the most affluent areas report a continued increase in life expectancy.

The discrepancy gap between men in affluent areas with the longest life expectancy and those with the shortest was 9.0 years in 1983 but the gap had expanded to 11 years by 1999. The discrepancy for women was 6.7 years in 1983 and 7.5 in 1999. On a global basis, affluent countries have seen an increase in life expectancy almost without exception.

Life expectancy is one factor universally associated with the quality of health care and social systems within a country. A decline in life span in places such as Eastern Europe and parts of Africa point to healthcare systems that have failed. Christopher Murray, Director for the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluations who is co-author for this study, points to the declining life expectancy in the US, as revealed by this study, to be a sign of a system needing “serious rethinking.”

The research team determined that diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cancer, and no improvements against death associated with cardiovascular diseases have attributed to the decline in life span in many areas. Men are at increased risk of death due to homicides and HIV/AIDS.

Researchers identify the significant role of smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure as contributors to shortened life spans, saying that these issues can be addressed at low cost but with high efficiency if ours was a healthcare system dedicated to closing this ever-widening gap in life expectancies within the US.

The April 22 edition of the journal PLoS Medicine carries more details of this study.

Source: Harvard School of Public Health