Declining life expectancy

In the age of social media and any number of other ways to be “connected,” the most state-of-the-art medical technology and prescriptions, the most up-to-date research on diet and fitness and the Affordable Care Act, in one of the most advance, developed nations in the world … life expectancy is dropping.

That’s right. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, average life expectancy for Americans is 78.6 years. That is a decline from last year, and part of a disturbing trend. The CDC says the multi-year decline in life expectancy is something the U.S. has not seen in a century. The last time it happened was from 1915 to 1918 — when the country was involved in World War I and experiencing a vicious flu pandemic.

West Virginians will not be surprised to learn causes of death on the increase include suicide, drug overdoses and diabetes.

Influenza and pneumonia deaths are on the rise as well.

Our nation has lost 3/10 of a year in life expectancy since 2014. There are now 28 other countries in which the citizens can be expected to live longer than we do. Japanese citizens can expect to live an average of 84.1 years — the oldest in the world.

Why are Americans headed in the wrong direction? Many of the causes of death noted by the CDC are preventable. Others are linked to mental health concerns — suicide increased 3.7 percent in 2017 alone, though the problem is much worse for those living in rural counties. The suicide rate there is at 13 per 100,000 deaths — an astounding 53 percent increase from 1999. Deaths from synthetic opioid overdoses increased 45 percent in 2017.

For all our “progress,” then, something has gone wrong. Observers of what has variously been called the Information, Computer or Digital Age might have picked up on the date 1999. That was the infancy of the Internet as we know it today. Broadband came along shortly thereafter. Facebook was invented in 2004. BlackBerry smartphones became an addiction in the early 2000s, and the first iPhone was released in 2007. (Yes. They’ve been around for only about 12 years.)

Meanwhile, in the regions of the country that used to have the fittest people who ate the freshest, healthiest food, people are now living almost totally sedentary lives, in “food deserts.” Remember when a country boy, or country girl was portrayed in popular culture as someone who was lean and strong from working hard all day, and came home to a meal of fresh vegetables picked from the farm down the road and meat raised or hunted by one of the neighbors?

We all know how country folks are portrayed in popular culture now. Neither extreme is quite fair, of course. But it is a stark contrast.

There is a lot more going on here. Rural counties are often poorer counties, with perhaps worse access to health care. And in some rural communities, the stigma that prevents acknowledgment and treatment of mental illness and addiction — for that matter, the fear of showing emotion or vulnerability that leads some to avoid acknowledging something as simple as loneliness — can be just as deadly.

No one would suggest that it is a good idea, or even possible, to scrap all the advances of the past 20 years; or that doing so would make us healthier and more long lived. But it might be time, ladies and gentlemen to take a look at what we failed to bring along with us as we marched into this brave new world — and adjustments we failed to make.

“Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, CDC director.

Well, now that we’ve gotten our wake-up call, what are we going to do about it?

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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