I remember when we were entering the 21st century writing a column about how, over the course of the previous 100 years, the life expectancy in the United States had increased by 30 years to 77.
I was 40 at the time, and I figured if our life spans continued to increase at the same rate, by the time I was 77 the life expectancy would have increased to 88, and by the time I got to 88, it would be 91. And surely there would be medical advancements leading to further increases in lifespan.
But in the last couple years, our average life expectancy has decreased two years in a row for the first time since 1961-63. If the results come in for 2017 and show another decrease, which it looks like they will, it will be the first time in 100 years — when the Spanish flu pandemic killed 500 million people worldwide — we will have seen three years in a row of declining life expectancy.
All the reports point to the current opioid epidemic as a big reason for the drop in life expectancy. By opioids, they mean heroin and various pain-reliever drugs.
Drug overdose is now the leading cause of accidental deaths in the U.S., having gone from 47,000 deaths in 2014 to 52,000 in 2015 and 64,000 in 2016. Of those, about 15,000 are due to heroin, another 15,000 due to traditional pain medications and up to 25,000 due to nonprescribed fentanyl, which is a drug 50 times stronger than heroin that is cooked up and spread around by drug cartels.
We can say, “Isn’t it terrible that so many people are hooked on drugs,” or wonder why it is. But at some point we have to face the fact it is the inevitable result of a system and culture that’s been pushing drugs for more than 100 years for everything that ails you.
Got a headache? Take an aspirin. Your back hurt? Take a pill. Sneezing, coughing, itchy throat? We've got you covered.
Drugs have been overprescribed and over-promoted. No wonder more than 1,000 people a day end up in the hospital for misusing prescription drugs.
But as alarming as the increase in drug deaths is, it doesn’t solely account for the drop in life expectancy.
Consider this: There are more than 300,000 deaths a year attributed to obesity. That wouldn’t have anything to do with the quality of the food we eat, would it? Or the lack of awareness exhibited by so many Americans regarding the relationship between our health and what we put in our bodies?
Diabetes, which in most cases is manageable through diet and exercise, accounts for 75,000 deaths a year.
Endocrine disruption, which is linked to pesticides in the environment, is identified as the cause in 21,000 deaths a year.
There are 33,000 gun deaths a year, most of which are suicides. We call it a mental health issue, yet we do so little in the way of education to help improve peoples’ mental health. Numerous studies show that arts education significantly improves long-term mental health; yet in a budget crunch, arts are the first thing to go. We focus instead on science, technology, engineering and math courses because they lead to higher-paying jobs. The lesson being — wealth is more important than health.
These are just a few statistics that reveal how sick and uncaring about it we are. As a cause, I point to the institutionalized focus on money rather than quality of life.
At a time when I like to wish health and happiness for the year ahead, I think we need to recognize that health causes happiness, and happiness creates health.