Deaths among working-age adults, especially, have been increasing in the United States for decades, particularly in economically struggling parts of the nation such as the “Rust Belt” and Appalachia, the researchers reported.
These early deaths are causing average life expectancy to decline in the United States. U.S. life expectancy dropped between 2014 and 2017, even while citizens in more than a dozen other industrialized nations continue to enjoy ever-longer lives.
The U.S. trend is being driven not just by the widely publicized “deaths of despair” — drug overdoses, alcoholism and suicide — but also by a diverse list of diseases affecting organs throughout the body, said lead researcher Dr. Steven Woolf. He’s director emeritus of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine’s Center on Society and Health.
The root cause of all this illness and death could be economic stress. Woolf and his colleagues suspect that the decline of the middle class in America is contributing to an average shorter lifespan across the country.
“It might turn out that investment in the middle class, and helping to bring jobs and economic development to those communities, might do more to save lives than adding another wing onto the hospital,” Woolf said.
Average U.S. life expectancy stood at 78.6 years in 2017, down from a peak of 78.9 in 2014, the researchers said in background notes.
The increase in working-age death rates has tracked closely with major shifts in the U.S. economy dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, when the country began to lose manufacturing jobs and the middle class started shrinking, Woolf said.
The largest relative increases in midlife mortality rates have occurred in the Ohio Valley (West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky) and in northern New England (New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont), according to the researchers’ analysis of federal data.
“In our analysis, we estimated how many excess deaths occurred in the United States due to this problem between 2010 and 2017,” Woolf said. “One-third of those deaths occurred in those four states in the Ohio Valley.”