Healthy Life Expectancy on the Decline, Study Finds

The Length of a Healthy Life Is on the Decline, Study Finds

By Beth Rush, Managing Editor at Body+Mind
Reviewed By Brett Stadelmann

People worldwide have been living longer lives for many years, but unfortunately, the United States is experiencing a startling decline in life expectancy. What’s causing the rise in premature mortality rates and how can you contribute to the shared goal of increasing longevity in the country?

Life Expectancy from 1800 to Today

The global average life expectancy in 1800 ranged between 30 and 40 years due to the significant number of infant mortality rates. However, from the mid-1800s onward, the numbers doubled every 10 generations because of the wide range of health advances, including clean water, sanitation, nutrition, vaccines, and other public health programs and technologies. Better living standards, poverty reduction and economic growth also contributed to the sudden global average life expectancy boost, now over 70 years.

With technological advancements, the world could only expect an upward trend in life expectancy. However, some research suggests the U.S. is experiencing the biggest decline in over a century.

Why Is There a Decline in Life Expectancy in the U.S.?

The COVID-19 pandemic started an unprecedented decline in life expectancy in the country. It was 47 years in 1900 and 79 years in 2019. However, it fell to 77 the next year and just around 76 years in 2021, marking the most significant decrease over two years since the 1920s.

Aside from COVID-19, factors such as drug overdoses and unintentional injury accounted for around two-thirds of the drop in life expectancy. Chronic illnesses like cardiovascular and liver diseases also contribute to the decreasing numbers. Despite the falling rates, the country has witnessed a decrease in deaths from pneumonia, chronic lung disease, influenza and Alzheimer’s disease.

Life expectancy varies per state. The numbers appear higher in the northern and eastern parts of the country, while lower numbers dominate the southern and western regions. This decrease may be associated with vaccination policies, pollution, climate and other factors.

The most significant drop in 2020 occurred among American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, and non-Hispanic Asian populations. Non-Hispanic white communities experienced the largest decrease the following year.

How Does the U.S. Compare to Other Countries?

The U.S. stands in the bottom half of the nations in the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — a group of high-income countries. Here’s the life expectancy in 2020, ranked from highest to lowest:

  • Japan: 84.7 years
  • South Korea: 83.5 years
  • Norway: 83.3 years
  • Australia: 83.2 years
  • Switzerland: 83.1 years
  • Ireland: 82.6 years
  • Luxembourg: 82.2 years
  • Greece: 81.4 years
  • United Kingdom: 80.4 years
  • Turkey: 78.6 years
  • United States: 77 years
  • Mexico: 75.2 years
  • Lithuania: 75.1 years

Nations with highly successful vaccination programs and public willingness to practice preventive measures are better at managing the decline in life expectancy. As for the U.S., despite leading several COVID-19 solutions worldwide, the country still ranks at the bottom of the OECD.

Graph showing Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy in various countries of the world
Life expectancy and healthy life expectancy in various countries of the world in 2019, according to WHO
Credit: Lady3mlnm – Own work
Source of data:

How to Improve Life Expectancy

The U.S. government is taking action to reverse the downward trend. The first step includes identifying longevity factors, including medical care systems, socioeconomic situations and policy choices. Among these components, health care stands as the most significant issue the country struggles with.

In 2019, the U.S. continued to outspend other countries in health care, allotting 17% of its gross domestic product (GDP) to it. Nations such as the U.K., Norway, Switzerland and Australia spent less but earned higher health care performance scores.

Researchers have drafted multiple recommendations for the country to address the dropping life expectancy rates. Professionals associated with the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggested Congress approve the Biden administration’s additional funding request for public health outreach, treatment, vaccination and research. With deaths from overdose also rising, the federal government should “make the use of medications for opioid use disorder the standard of care,” said Brendan Saloner, Ph.D., Bloomberg Professor of American Health in Addiction and Overdose.

In addition to government programs and initiatives, people should also take responsibility for their health. People can collectively contribute to boosting life expectancy rates by embracing a culture of healthy living in their area. Your environment shapes your behavior, particularly when it supports health-supportive practices. Communities promoting nutritious food, active lifestyles and recreational opportunities can foster positive habits that contribute to longevity.

5 Tips to Live Longer

The nation’s life expectancy can increase if people collectively take action towards healthier practices. Here are some strategies to keep your body in tip-top shape.

  1. Avoid Smoking

Nicotine can harm your cardiovascular system, narrowing arteries and veins and increasing blood pressure. Smoking cigarettes also increases your risk of developing kidney diseases more than non-smokers. It might be challenging to quit the habit — especially if you’ve been doing it for many years — but the sooner you stop, the earlier you’ll notice positive changes in your body, such as improved breathing and increased energy levels.

  1. Get Daily Exercise

Factors such as obesity and a sedentary lifestyle are risk factors for chronic diseases. With only 28% of Americans exercising sufficiently, there is an increased urgency for regular physical activity.

You should dedicate at least 30 minutes of your day to working out, which may be as simple as taking a morning stroll or going to the gym. Try breaking it down into three 10-minute daily activities — a 10-minute yoga session in the morning, an afternoon workout and an evening stroll after dinner.

If you’re stuck in a rut, build the habit slowly. Commit to daily exercise — even if it’s just for 10 to 15 minutes — then gradually increase it as the day progresses. Stay consistent and never give up.

  1. Eat Fruits and Vegetables

Do just like your parents said and eat your greens because your body needs essential nutrients to keep it healthy. They’re naturally high in fiber and low in calories, which your body needs to stay fit without the added weight.

Try these easy hacks to get more nutritious foods on your plate:

  • Make a smoothie: Blending your favorite fruits and vegetables together is a great way to get almost all the nutritional benefits without worrying about too much texture and flavor. Add a handful of kale and spinach to boost your beverage’s fiber and vitamin A content.
  • Experiment with cooking: Prepare your vegetables differently. For instance, if you dislike raw carrots, try grilling them with herbs and spices.
  • Add “hidden” vegetables: Come up with creative ways to sneak some veggies into your favorite dishes, like meatloaf with collard greens or shrimp cauliflower fried rice.
  • Create a soup: Soups usually contain a wide variety of vegetables, making it an ideal way to explore new flavors. Ensure you choose a product with the lowest amount of sodium or make it from scratch so you can tailor it to your preferences.
  • Add fruits to oatmeal: The beauty of oats is they’re easily customizable. Add fresh fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries and mangoes. You can also add spices and mushrooms for added texture and savory flavor.
  • Prepare a salad: Create a delicious salad centered on your favorite protein, such as chicken, salmon or tuna. Add onions, carrots, lettuce, cucumber and spinach.
  1. Manage Stress Levels

Stress triggers the release of cortisol, a hormone that helps your body respond to threats by raising your respiration and heart rates. Not all types of stress are detrimental to health. However, long-term elevations can increase your risk of health problems, such as heart disease, anxiety, depression and high blood pressure. Physical manifestations include:

  • Headaches
  • Upset stomach
  • Tense muscles
  • Sleeping problems
  • Weight gain or loss

When stressed, pause and take a moment to identify the underlying cause and possible solutions. Mind-body therapies like gentle yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises and progressive muscle relaxation are effective strategies to help you eliminate mental tension. If you struggle to manage it alone, don’t hesitate to seek professional help.

  1. Schedule Regular Health Check-Ups

Undergoing an annual physical checkup is essential to preventing the onset of diseases. Discuss your concerns with your doctor, such as getting in shape and improving your sleeping habits. If you have one or more medical conditions, you may require more frequent screenings with your healthcare provider.

In addition to health screenings and tests, you must get recommended vaccinations against the flu and COVID-19. Your physician might also require you to have screenings, such as mammograms, colonoscopies and pap smears to allow early detection and intervention.

  1. Stay Mentally Active

While simple forgetfulness is normal, it can increase with aging, so keep your brain in shape with various methods. One of the best ways to exercise your mind is by staying active. Working out triggers the development of new nerve cells, making you more efficient and productive.

Brain exercises like solving a puzzle, building your vocabulary and learning a new skill can bring many cognitive benefits. Trying things you’ve never done before is exciting and rewarding, so it can be therapeutic, too.

Being mindful of your diet can also benefit your brain health. Add these brain-boosting foods to your plate:

  • Dark chocolate: This food is delicious and packed with antioxidants that help support cognitive function.
  • Green leafy vegetables: Spinach, broccoli, and kale contain brain-friendly nutrients such as folate and vitamin E, which can boost brain development and cell membrane protection.
  • Berries: Fresh or frozen, these tiny fruits have big benefits with their high levels of antioxidants. Enjoy them on their own, with oatmeal, smoothies or salads.
  • Green tea: This beverage is rich in antioxidants, which help guard the brain from free radicals.

A Collective Journey to Longer Life

The decline in life expectancy demands immediate action from the government and its constituents. While there’s no overnight cure to help prevent premature death, you can practice healthy habits and encourage your loved ones to do the same so many people can live happy and longer lives.

About the Author

Beth Rush is the Managing Editor at Body+Mind and a lover of all things health and wellness. She is a well-respected writer in the personal wellness space and shares knowledge on a variety of topics related to nutrition, fitness, holistic health and disease prevention. In her spare time, Beth enjoys cooking healthy recipes and trying out new fitness trends.

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