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Why American Life Expectancy Is Slipping

headstones in front of a background of autumn foliage
photo by David Ohmer

Back in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed, life expectancy in Russia dropped.

By the middle of that decade, an average man in St. Petersburg lived seven fewer years than he had at the end of the communist period, and eight fewer if he lived in Moscow. The country’s overall population declined by nearly 5 percent between 1992 and 2009, and much of the loss appeared to be caused by rising mortality rates. While Russian life expectancy has recovered somewhat from its low point, it still lags those of other large economies.

Many people have taken different views on what precisely triggered Russia’s demographic crisis. But a lot of people in this country saw the falling life expectancies as a sign of a failing society that had bypassed many of its own citizens. Life expectancies don’t fall because medical science is going backward; they fall because people give up and stop taking care of themselves. Why plan for the future if the future seems to have little to offer?

Don’t look now, but U.S. life expectancies have started dropping.

A study by the Society of Actuaries recently reported that the life expectancy for 65-year-olds is six months shorter than it was last year. Younger Americans also lost projected life expectancy by about the same amount. It is not yet by much, but Americans of every age are doing worse this year.

As Bloomberg observed in reporting this news, estimating longevity is a tricky business that rests on many factors. But even though one year could be a fluke, actuaries say American longevity is, at best, slowing dramatically.

Although it is happening to a lesser degree than in Russia a quarter-century ago, the drop in life expectancy here is happening for many of the same reasons. Large swaths of this country feel bypassed in today’s economy. Some vote for angry protest candidates like Donald Trump. Others simply vote to forget their problems with the help of a bottle or a needle or a pill. Just as in Russia, people here are literally dying of bad policy.

A tax system that drives away less-skilled manufacturing jobs and an education system that leaves many unprepared for the more intellectually demanding positions that remain are large parts of the problem. But so too is an utterly failed, 50-year war on drugs that has left both rural and urban areas awash in deadly substances that are promoted by an army of vendors whose profit margins are protected by law.

The Drug Enforcement Administration faced and faces significant pushback in any serious attempt to curb the opioid crisis, since such attempts could cut into the pharmaceutical industry’s bottom line. According to The Washington Post, 165,000 people died of prescription painkiller overdoses between 2000 and 2014, with an additional 55,000 heroin overdose deaths in the same period. Yet, in that same period, enforcement cases decreased.

In late June, DEA Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg spoke about the agency’s most recent findings on opioid abuse. “We tend to overuse words such as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘horrific,’” Rosenberg said, “but the death and destruction connected to heroin and opioids is indeed unprecedented and horrific.”

Unlike Russia, we don’t see relatively large numbers of Americans drinking themselves to death – even though any American over 21 can walk into almost any grocery store in the country and walk out with as many six-packs as he or she can push in a cart. This is not to say Americans don’t die of alcohol abuse; they do. But we do not see anything like Russia’s alcohol problem, for instance. According to World Health Organization data, more than 30 percent of all deaths in Russia in 2012 were connected to alcohol use. In the United States it was about 3 percent that same year.

In America death is largely dealt, not in our liquor stores, but in alleys and on street corners. Its distributors are pushers – rebranded now as “nonviolent drug offenders” – and gangbangers. Yet we refuse to acknowledge our own inability to stop the drug trade with the force of criminal law, and we refuse to employ the laws of economics instead. Take the profit out of the business and the business will at least shrink, if not disappear. It is counterintuitive, but decriminalizing drugs would make their abuse less widespread and deadly, as well as easier to address – just as was the case with alcohol when Prohibition ended.

Tellingly, actuaries report that the decline in life expectancies has spared the affluent. This is not because they get different treatment when they arrive in an emergency room; it is because they give themselves different treatment at home. The sense, among a segment of Americans, that the future will offer no improvement on the present is taking a real and measurable toll.

Americans are literally dying of bad choices. How long will it take before we start demanding that people in official authority start making better ones?

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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