Reverse falling life-expectancy trends in 2023

York Dispatch editorial board

Well, here’s a little unwelcome news to start off the new year: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, life expectancy in the United States is on the decline.

The federal agency reported last month that the average life expectancy for Americans born in 2021 was about 76 years, four months. That’s the lowest the figure has been in more than 25 years and the second straight year that the average has dipped.

Updated statewide figures are not yet available but life expectancy in Pennsylvania in 2020, the most recent year available, was 76 years, nine months, down more than a year from the 2018 average of a little more than 78.

FILE - In this March 10, 2021 file photo, a couple walks through a park at sunset in Kansas City, Mo. U.S. life expectancy dropped for two consecutive years in 2020 and 2021, marking the first such trend since the early 1920s, according to a new government report. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)

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That puts the Keystone State roughly at the top of the bell curve in a nation where average lifespans range from less than 72 (Mississippi) to more than 80 (Hawaii).

Internationally, the U.S. didn’t even crack the top 50, according to statistics gathered by the World Bank based on United Nation Population Division estimates and other sources: The list, topped by Hong Kong and Japan, where life expectancies were 85-plus, saw the U.S. place behind such nations as Slovenia and Lebanon and the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

There are, however, a few silver linings to be found amid the dark statistics. The CDC cites the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the nation’s spiraling drug-abuse epidemic as among the leading contributors to the drop in U.S. life expectancy. Scourges though these challenges are, both remain somewhat within our control.

But it will take work.

The CDC’s National Center for Health Sciences, for example, reported that drug overdose deaths in the U.S. skyrocketed more than 14% year over year in 2021, to more than 106,000. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were the leading cause and fatalities were up in every single age group and among both men and women.

The situation was particularly stark in Pennsylvania, where more than a dozen residents die every single day from drug overdoses.

The state Attorney General’s office is among the many agencies providing resources for those grappling with addiction. And the Pennsylvania help line can be reached at 800-662-HELP (4357) for those seeking immediate assistance and treatment.

As for the pandemic, strategies for diminishing exposure to the still-circulating virus variants have long been obvious: vaccinations, boosters and masks.

In fact, resistance to these measures among some populations may already have been reflected in life-expectancy statistics, some CDC researchers believe.

After the initial COVID pandemic hit Latino and American Indian/Alaskan Native populations especially hard, those communities pursued vaccinations. By contrast, health researcher Dr. Stephen Woolf told the Los Angeles Times, “many white populations either believed they were at less risk, or had political objections to getting vaccinated or wearing masks.”

The result: a measurable reversal in fatality trends among white Americans and populations of color.

Nothing could be more stark than that.

And nothing could be easier than taking advantage of the now widely available vaccinations and boosters, and donning masks when and where appropriate, to protect against the persistent pandemic.

No one’s suggesting overcoming the tentacles of addiction is similarly straightforward. It takes commitment, determination and a real will to change. Fortunately, there are countless substance abuse services and rehabilitation centers prepared to greet those who are ready to take that all-important first step.

Whether through the hard work of reducing widespread addiction or the simple steps of smart public-health measures, let’s all do our part to make the reversal of Pennsylvania’s falling life-expectancy trends a statewide resolution for 2023.