US life expectancy declines for first time in 20 years

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If only the good die young, Americans are unfortunately getting better.

U.S. life expectancy dipped by about a month last year from 2014, to 78.8 years, according to a report form the National Center for Health Statistics. It’s the first decline in more than two decades. And after years of gains, U.S. life expectancy has been essentially flat for a few years, which means an inauspicious trend could be in the works.

“My major concern is that we know the exact cause of the fall in life expectancy — mortality is rising across a wide variety of illnesses,” says Jonathan Skinner, a professor at Dartmouth University’s Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice. “It’s not entirely easy to figure out what to do about it.”

Gender matters. For males, life expectancy fell to 76.3 years from 76.5 years. For women, life expectancy decreased to 81.2, down about 0.1 year from 2014.

The culprits for our declining years were increases in mortality from heart disease, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, kidney disease, and suicide. Not surprisingly, that group plus cancer and Alzheimer’s disease make up the top 10 causes of U.S. deaths.

Heart disease and cancer are the runaway top killers. The death rate from heart disease increased almost 1%. The death rate from cancer actually fell 1.7%.

Heart disease rates are probably a function of the U.S. obesity epidemic, Donald Lloyd-Jones, head of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, told the Wall Street Journal. Obesity is blamed for increases in rates of hypertension, diabetes and other heart-related problems.

“We’re reaping what we’ve sown,” Lloyd-Jone said. “It’s a clear causal chain.”

The march toward a higher life expectancy has been pretty consistent for decades thanks to gains in medical and public health knowledge. And, big picture, the news isn’t all bad. Babies born in 2015 are still expected to live about two years longer than babies born in 2000 were expected to live. And a 2015 baby’s life expectancy is more than 10 years longer than what those those who joined world in 1950 were facing.

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