New data from the National Center for Health Statistics has found that life expectancy in the United States for 2015 has fallen for the first time in over two decades. One of the most alarming aspects of the fall is that it has no obvious, singular cause. Unlike the three other drops we’ve had in the past 40 years, which were caused by diseases such as influenza (in 1979 and 1992) or AIDs (in 1993), the current drop is much more perplexing. Life expectancy growth has slowed in the U.S. since the 1980s and is now “backsliding,” according to Samuel Preston, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania – even though improvements in medicine and medical research has marched on. Meanwhile, life expectancy increased in Europe this year.
Death rates due to heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and accidents (including drug overdoses) were major factors, as well as deaths from strokes, suicides and diabetes. The increase in death for people under 65 has been tied particularly to drug overdoses.
What is going on in the U.S. that could be causing this troubling rise? According to a study by the Pew Research Center, income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928. The top 20 percent of U.S. households own more than 84 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the bottom 40 percent combined own just 0.3 percent.
Over 20 million people in the U.S. are uninsured – and, whether they have insurance or not, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that 1 in 4 citizens cannot afford health care costs, which includes vital self-maintenance such as check-ups and screenings. Even after being diagnosed, “nearly 1 in 10 American adults don’t take their medications as prescribed because they can’t afford to,” according to the CDC National Center for Health Statistics’ briefing this past January.
Many people also can’t afford to eat healthy: one study by the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that low-income Americans “would have to spend up to 70 percent of their food budget on fruits and vegetables to meet new national dietary guidelines for healthy eating.”
This relates directly to increases in diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
Meanwhile, poverty is taking a major toll on the mental health of young people. Clinical psychologist and researcher Richard Bentall wrote an important article for The Guardian earlier this year, concluding from his research that “poverty in childhood, social inequality and early exposure to urban environments; migration and belonging to an ethnic minority” all increase the likelihood of mental illness later in life by three-fold, or much more if these factors are combined. Bentall states that “the evidence of a link between childhood misfortune and future psychiatric disorder is about as strong statistically as the link between smoking and lung cancer.”
The conclusion he comes to is that psychological disorders (which are primary factors in both suicide and drug abuse) are just as much sociological in cause as they are biological, if not more so.
Rapidly increasing social inequality has been a menace to U.S. workers for decades, and we are dying because of it at a now-increasing rate. Our comfort, happiness and lives are threatened by corporations, and the elite valuing profit over the well-being of workers – and as billionaire Donald Trump rounds up his cabinet of CEOs, racists, and radical conservatives, it’s clear that the people are going to be the ones who will have to fight back.