Americans’ Life Expectancy Just Went Up. Here’s the Good News and the Bad News.

It's a small step in the right direction, but not enough for the U.S. to catch up to its peers.

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For the first time in four years, life expectancy in the United States increased. Thanks to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control, this is the first time since 2014 that this number has gone up. That’s definitely good, as no one is cheering for life expectancy to decrease, but there are lots of reasons to temper the excitement. Here’s the real-deal with these numbers.

For one, it’s a pretty small increase. A child born in 2017 is expected to live to be 78.6 years old, while a child born in 2018 is expected to live to 78.7 years old. That’s an increase of approximately 36.5 days, not the nearly one and a half years it would take for the United States to match the average life expectancy of 80 years for the 36 OECD countries, a useful shorthand for the developed world.

Distressingly, suicide rates increased 1.4 percent from 2017 to 2018, a sign that mental health continues to be neglected. And deaths caused by influenza and pneumonia, which are treated as a single category by the CDC, increased by a staggering 4.2 percent. (Reminder: get your damn flu shot.)

That’s not to say there isn’t some good news. The combined rates for the country’s ten leading causes of death dropped by more than eight per 100,000, with six of the ten categories decreasing. Cancer-related deaths dropped by more than two percent from 2018, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease fell by nearly a point and a half, and heart disease decreased, if only by less than one percent.

The rate of deaths due to kidney disease and diabetes stayed about the same.

Another positive sign is that deaths from unintended injuries fell by 2.8 percent. This category might sound like people falling off of things, but it actually includes drug overdoses, which fell nearly five percent overall even while deaths due to synthetic opioids spiked 10 percent.

So while this nudging up is good news, there is plenty more that could and should be done to help people live longer. Building a stronger social safety net for one would make the United States more like its peer countries and likely bring its life expectancy closer to theirs.

Because when millions of people lack access to healthcare, symptoms go ignored, diseases undiagnosed, and prescriptions unfilled, none of which will help increase these numbers in the years to come.

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