Increasing attention has been drawn to the declining life expectancy in the United States, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the most significant decrease since World War II. A recent report reveals that this decline dates back to the 1950s.
A Long-Standing Issue
Dr. Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, states, “The fact that life expectancy declined in the 1950s raises questions about what was happening during that time.”
He adds, “The issue of declining life expectancy is more extensive and longstanding than previously believed.”
Insights for Reversing the Trend
Experts in the field note that these findings offer valuable insights into reversing the concerning trend of life expectancy in the United States.
Early 20th Century Health
In the first half of the 20th century, the United States made significant strides in public health, from better sanitation to widespread vaccination, leading to remarkable increases in life expectancy.
A Surprising Peak in the 1950s
This new report charts the course of rising life expectancy, which peaked in the 1950s when the United States held the 12th global rank.
However, starting in 1955, the growth rate began to decline, and by 1968, the U.S. had slipped to 29th place.
Rethinking the Decline’s Starting Point
Dr. Steven Woolf’s research challenges previous assumptions about when the decline began and redefines its timeline. He explains, “We used to think the decline started in the 1980s because we hadn’t looked closely at historical data.”
Fluctuations in Recent Years
The study reveals that life expectancy in the U.S. peaked in 1974, declined in 1983, and is currently at its lowest since 1996, at around 76 years, according to the latest 2021 CDC data.
Data Estimates and Variations
Dr. Woolf explains that the study’s rankings and yearly changes may vary due to estimates from the U.S. Mortality Database and the U.N. Population Division.
Factors Shaping Life Expectancy
Individual health choices and systemic factors influence life expectancy, says Michal Engelman, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Engelman emphasizes that looking at the past can show us that change is achievable and that circumstances are not permanent.
Life expectancy growth in the U.S. has varied since the 1950s. According to Dr. Woolf, the Western and Northeastern states saw the most rapid increases, while Midwestern and South-Central states experienced slower growth.
Dr. Woolf emphasizes the importance of these state groupings, noting, “These states have had a big impact on the country’s low life expectancy rankings.”
States Achieving Health Parity
States such as Hawaii and New York have life expectancies similar to the world’s healthiest nations. This study confirms that policy decisions impact health and life expectancy.
Multifaceted Factors Influencing Health
According to Michal Engelman, factors influencing health and lifespan are multifaceted. She argues that “our health story extends beyond our control.”
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