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Life expectancy gains bring hope

Challenges to life expectancy remain in the coming

Challenges to life expectancy remain in the coming years from the continued pandemic and other health issues. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

There are two potential and opposite trends to be gleaned from the 2020 American life expectancy numbers released last week, and it’s up to us to speed the one that will benefit us all.

The first trend is obvious: It involves the coronavirus pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, and that was largely responsible for reducing life expectancy by 1.5 years from 78.8 in 2019 to 77.3 in 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The grim news did not stop there, and the downward trend in the average number of years a group of newborns would live has more behind it than COVID-19. Other factors behind the drop include homicides, diabetes and drug overdoses, according to the federal agency.

There were racial disparities in the life expectancy drops, with largest declines for Hispanic and Black Americans, and the drop overall was historic: the biggest since World War II, leaving American life expectancy at its lowest since 2003.

This downward trend has often been a concern at some level since 2010, with the nation struggling with twin opioid and suicide crises. And more health challenges remain in the coming years — from the continued pandemic, and chickens coming home to roost for all those skipped doctor's appointments and checkups over the past months.

The other trend, the more hopeful one that could turn things around for this simple barometer of national health, is less visible.

There is a silver lining in the fact that life expectancy would have fallen more but for decreases in deaths from cancer, chronic lower respiratory and heart diseases. Scientists, doctors and social workers have fought hard for lifesaving advances in treatment and intervention in areas like that, just as they fought to stem the pandemic. And large turnarounds are possible: Life expectancy numbers quickly rebounded after drops during the Spanish flu and World War I which hit young people hard. Scientific breakthroughs and widespread behavioral changes can log enormous gains in people’s lives. People are living close to ten years longer than they did in the 1950s, and among the factors we can thank are less tobacco use, healthier lifestyles and better treatment for some health issues.

Let's continue in this direction. We can invest in research on medicine and addiction and good health care to all even more effectively than we do now. We can provide treatment and double down our attack on opioid abuse. We can boost the economy and narrow the huge gaps of inequality, end this pandemic through vaccination and cooperation and tackle the other maladies of modern existence, embrace the trends that lift our lives up and stem the ones that cruelly shrink our longevity. What more important challenge could there be?

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.