Thursday, December 08, 2016

U.S. is getting sicker in all ways

I find my eyes turned southward more often these days, hardly surprising given that each day brings some new and usually revolting turn of events in the troubled U.S. (Today: Donald Trump picks Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, whose state is currently suing the Environmental Protection Agency, to head the EPA).

But today's news brought unsettling news of another kind for Americans: Their life expectancy fell in 2015 for the first time in more than 20 years. And what marks this decline as different from the last one in 1993 is that it came after three years of flat-lined life expectancy - unusual in itself given that in the last 50 years, U.S. life expectancy has tended up until now to increase each year.

Overall life expectancy is now 78.8 in the U.S. Break that 0.1 per cent drop down and what it means in real terms is that Americans are now living one month less on average - and if they're men, two months less.

While the thought of living one month less may not seem like a troubling detail in the grand scheme of a life, it's the demographic trends and the  kinds of things that are killing Americans that ought to be sending up the red flags. Death rates have risen for eight of the 10 leading causes of death in the U.S.: Heart disease (0.9% rise), chronic lower respiratory diseases (2.7%), unintentional injuries (6.7%), stroke (3%), Alzheimer's disease (15.7%), diabetes (1.9%), kidney disease (1.5%) and suicide (2.3%).

A number of those eight causes are related to health conditions that have been on the rise year after year in the States. Diabetes rates are soaring; some 29 million Americans now have the chronic disease - more than nine per cent of the population - compared to 1.6 million in 1958. More than 95 per cent of those cases involve Type 2 diabetes, which is caused by lifestyle-related issues such as obesity and insufficient exercise.

Stroke rates have fallen among older Americans, but risen among younger ones. Americans born between 1965-74 - Generation X - have a 43 per cent higher chance of having a stroke than do Americans born 20 years earlier (1945-54) during what health researchers have dubbed "The Golden Generation."

And if all that isn't alarming enough, 2015 also brought a startling 11.4 per cent rise in accidental deaths of babies under the age of one. The majority died due to suffocation or accidental strangulation in their beds. In the BBC piece I linked to higher in this post, the medical director at Northwell Health's Huntington Hospital in New York said accidental deaths include car crashes, falls, suffocation and fires, but linked the rise in accidental infant deaths to "social stressors" such as financial pressures and addiction.

"The dramatic upswing in the use of opiates and narcotic use across our country is potentially a big factor in driving a phenomenon like accidental injury," he said. Like Canada, the U.S. has seen a staggering rise in opiate use and overdose deaths in the last few years, with a record 28,000 Americans dead from opiate overdoses in 2014 alone. (And check out the rising number of deaths from prescription drugs - frightening.)

The depth of the problems become even clearer when you look at how American health compares to health in other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) It now ranks 28th out of 45 countries - below the Czech Republic, Chile and Costa Rica.

Sadly, all the wealth in the world can't buy the U.S. out of this crisis. Its health-care costs per capita are among the highest in the world at $9,403, more than double the OECD average of $4,735. Next time someone tries to pitch you on the benefits of a privatized health-care system, remind them of that.

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