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More young people are dying. What does that say about America? | Editorial

Researchers need to better pinpoint the reasons so the trend can be reversed.
The United States' life expectancy has gone down four out of the last five years largely because of deaths in the 25-64 age range. [OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times]
The United States' life expectancy has gone down four out of the last five years largely because of deaths in the 25-64 age range. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

From 2014 to 2017, Americans’ life expectancy went down after about 60 years of largely going up. And the reason for that is even more concerning: rising death rates for Americans in the 25-to-64 age group. In the past, researchers traced the trend of more young people dying to largely white, rural areas. But a recent study shows younger Americans are dying more frequently in every racial and ethnic group in all areas of the country.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that the 2018 life expectancy actually went up from 78.6 years to 78.7 years. But experts caution that the shift from one year to the other is not enough to discount overall worrying trends, like deaths in young people. From 2010 to 2017, more than 33,000 people have died in the United States in ages 25 to 64 than if mortality rates stayed the same or decreased. In general terms, that rate went up from 328.5 deaths for every 100,000 people between 25 and 64 in 2010 to 348.2 deaths for every 100,000 people seven years later. That was particularly high for those in the 25-to-34 age range, the youngest part of the midlife bracket. Deaths for young adults went up 29 percent from 2010 to 2017. The mid-life group appears to be disproportionately affected by deaths in the last decade, as researchers said mortality rates are actually getting better for children and older adults. It’s just the people in this middle group that continue to die more frequently.

Researchers say the causes for death are so varying that the increasing mortality rates can’t simply be blamed on one thing. They include drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides and physical conditions like heart disease, strokes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. But not any one thing is the root cause, scientists say. They’re “so diverse that it makes us think something systemic is responsible and is expressing itself in our health in many different domains,” said Dr. Steven Woolf, the lead author on the report, in an interview with NBC News. While the increasing midlife death rates are affecting all areas of the country, the largest increases are centered in two geographic areas: New England and the Ohio Valley. About a third of all midlife excess deaths from 2010 to 2017 occurred in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky, areas in which the opioid crisis is keenly felt.

Worse still, America represents an exception to the rule when compared with other wealthy and developed countries. This is particularly shocking when considering that the United States has the highest per capita health spending in the world, reports The New York Times. Although the study focused only on parts of the last decade, the United States began experiencing higher excess deaths than other countries as early as the 1970s, according to Woolf. “This is a distinctly American phenomenon,” he told NBC News.

While the results of the study depict a devastating trend, they yield as many questions as they answer. How can America improve? Some say the answer lies in America itself. After all, life expectancy in the coastal metro areas on the East and West coasts has still improved at about the same amount as Canada. Perhaps the next question is what can be gleaned from those areas such as New Hampshire and West Virginia, where some of the highest increases in mortality rates have occurred. The overall trends are disturbing, and the reasons need to be better identified to shape public policy and reverse those trends.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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