Life expectancy has fallen for the second time in two years—from a high of 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2016. And it fell across the board—for men and women, whites, blacks, and Hispanics. Statistics show that thousands were preventable, premature deaths.
Life expectancy is not supposed to fall in countries that are this rich, spend this much on health, and pride themselves on taking care of each other. As a demographer working in a school of public health, I am astounded by the complacency at the loss of so many Americans in the prime of life.
Where can we turn for leadership? What can each of us do about the crisis? Public health has answers. The modern practice of public health is about building community coalitions to support many simultaneous strategies across different sectors. The public health problems of the 20th century were not solved by magic bullets; it took massive social change and political enlightenment. It will take nothing less in the 21st century.
Life Expectancy Through History
Between 1880 and 1945, U.S. life expectancy rose from 40 to 65 years old. And, until 2014, life expectancy continued to rise. In high-income countries in Western Europe and Asia—such as Korea, Singapore, and France—life expectancy has advanced well above 80.
But the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the death count for Americans under 65 rose by 20,566 between 2015 and 2016. Based on population growth alone, one would have expected only 6,131 additional deaths. The other 14,435 Americans died prematurely of causes that could have prevented.
The extra American funerals were for people dying in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s. Their death certificates list mostly overdoses from opioids and other substances, cirrhosis, suicide, and homicide.
The Role of Public Health
Public health is the profession devoted to identifying health threats, notifying the community and securing solutions from both private and public sectors. Bacteria in the milk supply? Unsafe vehicles? Insufficient vitamins? Public health professionals have sounded the alarm and spurred effective countermeasures. Their professional tools include epidemiology, communications, economics, law and, most importantly, political coalitions.
However, modern scourges like addiction, suicide, and despair do not have easy solutions. We know partial remedies include funding addiction treatment, more access to the overdose antidote naloxone, better prescribing patterns and drug enforcement. None is sufficient alone. No single measure addresses the long pipeline that generates addiction in the first place.
Community vulnerability to diseases of despair like suicide and addiction comes from a failure of social solidarity. Sociologists regularly observe an inverse relationship between suicide rates and national markers for social trust. Public health can bring us together to tackle our current nemesis.
Public Health 3.0
We’re already seeing how potential solutions to these problems can take shape.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services introduced a new strategic blueprint called Public Health 3.0. The plan asks for the nation’s public health officials to gather citizens, local businesses, hospitals, schools, and other government agencies to understand and respond to modern health threats. The core of the strategy has been asking for health officers to become conveners and facilitators of local solutions.