Life Expectancy: Explaining the US Recession

Life Expectancy: Explaining the US Recession
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Karen Sternheimer

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report last year indicating that life expectancy in the United States will increase from 2020 to 2021. fell by about 2.7 years, “the largest two-year drop in life expectancy since 1921-1923.”

What is life expectancy, how does it differ and why has it decreased?

What is it?

Life expectancy is a measure used by demographers and epidemiologists to estimate the average lifespan of a person in a given population. The measure is calculated to estimate how likely a person born in that year is to live, or their life expectancy at birth. They also measure life expectancy for a particular age based on a person’s current age, the number of years they can live.

Life expectancy measures have practical applications; They are used to calculate life insurance premiums and can help people predict how many years they may need to save for, say, retirement.

If you look at this CDC life expectancy table, you’ll notice that it not only provides estimates based on race, but also by race, ethnicity, and (binary) gender. in 2021 the data on which this table was calculated showed that the average life expectancy of infants was 76.1 years; in 2019 was 78.8 years old.

How is it different?

A closer look at 2021 table shows large differences in life expectancy by gender and race. Women’s life expectancy was almost 6 years longer than men’s. Native American life expectancy was almost 11 years shorter than the average American at birth. In contrast, the life expectancy at birth for an Asian American was approximately 7 years longer than the average American.

It matters where you live. As you can see in the map below, there are stark differences in life expectancy based on geography. Sociologists and other social scientists study the social determinants of health, which the CDC defines as “nonmedical factors that influence health outcomes.” CDC focuses on five categories: economic stability, education, access and quality of health care, neighborhood, and social context. Harvard Medical School’s blog provides some examples:

Those with the shortest life expectancy in the U.S. tend to have the most poverty, experience the most food insecurity, and have less or no access to health care, all factors that contribute to shorter life expectancy. Additionally, groups with shorter life expectancies tend to work in higher-risk jobs that cannot be done virtually, live in crowded environments, and have less access to vaccinations, all of which increase the risk of contracting or dying from COVID-19.

Figure 1Source:

Why has life expectancy decreased?

The obvious answer is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed 1,128,404 American lives as of this writing. But life expectancy in other rich countries has been increasing since 2020, so what’s happening in the US?

An NPR story detailing this trend summarized some of the differences between the U.S. and peer countries:

Americans eat more calories and don’t have universal access to health care. But there is also greater child poverty, racial segregation, social isolation, and more. Even the design of cities makes access to good food difficult.

The paper also points to “factors such as teenage pregnancy, drug overdose, HIV, fatal car crashes, injuries and violence,” according to the report titled "Shorter life, poorer health."

FDA Health Commissioner Robert Califf recently told the Associated Press that health misinformation should be added to the list:

Growing “distortions and half-truths” surrounding vaccines and other medical products are now the “leading cause of death in America.”

“Almost nobody should die from COVID in the US today,” noted the government’s distribution of free vaccines and antivirals. “People who deny themselves that opportunity die because they are misinformed.”

Life expectancy, like life itself, is the result of both individual and social factors. We are well aware of the personal choices we are driven to make, but we often ignore the social factors that determine our lifespan. Policy decisions that affect our access to health care and the quality of that health care are often more difficult to grasp than personal choices. Even our choices are shaped by larger forces: whether we have access to high-quality, nutritious foods we can afford, the time and space to exercise, the jobs we can get, and our exposure to environmental hazards. larger social forces.

What other social forces determine life expectancy?

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