The National Center for Health Statistics released a startling and depressing report on life expectancy trends in the United States: Between 2014 and 2015 average American life expectancy at birth dropped to 78.8 years for the total U.S. population—a decrease of 0.1 year from 78.9 years in 2014. For males, life expectancy changed from 76.5 years in 2014 to 76.3 years in 2015—a decrease of 0.2 years, and for females, life expectancy decreased 0.1 year from 81.3 years in 2014 to 81.2 years in 2015. Since average life expectancy for Americans over age 65 remained steady at 19.4 years, the decrease is attributable to higher death rates in younger and middle-aged residents. The mortality rates in eight of the top ten leading causes of death increased, including more deaths from heart disease, accidents (including drug overdoses), strokes, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and suicide.
Life expectancy last declined in the U.S. in 1993, just before the advent of good treatments for HIV/AIDS. What accounts of this dismal news? Last year, Princeton University researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton reported that mortality rates had increased for poor middle-aged white Americans, especially among those living in rural areas. Given that more Americans than ever are now covered by health insurance, what can account for this decrease in average life expectancy? The NCHS report does not speculate, but I will.
Lots of research suggests that higher mortality correlates with persistent joblessness. The civilian labor force participation rate peaked at 67.3 percent in 2000 and has now fallen to 62.7 percent today. In June the White House issued a report that noted the alarming fall in the prime-age male labor force participation rate, from a peak of 98 percent in 1954 to 88 percent today. Specifically, the report observed that "in 1964, 98 percent of prime-age men with a college degree or more participated in the workforce, compared to 97 percent of men with a high school degree or less. In 2015, the rate for college-educated men had fallen slightly to 94 percent while the rate for men with a high school degree or less had plummeted to 83 percent." Over at the Washington Post, David Weir, director of the health and retirement study at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan notes that during the past five years, improvements in death rates were among the smallest of the past four decades.
So what is responsible for decreasing average life expectancy? Demoralization among our poorest citizens.