There was much handwringing last week over a new report from the National Center for Health Statistics showing that life expectancy in the United States in 2015 had declined for the first time since the HIV epidemic in 1993. The dip, from 78.9 years to 78.8 years, was called “huge,” “striking,” and “very grim” by demographers, sociologists, and various other number-crunchers.
Peter Muennig, MD, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University, told the New York Times that the decline was unique among developed countries. Life expectancy, he noted, is always expected to increase in these advanced cultures. “That’s very consistent and predictable, so to see it decrease, that’s very alarming.”
The number of deaths in 2015 topped those recorded in 2014 by a whopping 86,212, or 1.2 percent. Alzheimer’s deaths rose by 15.7 percent, while suicides increased by 2.3 percent and deaths caused by “unintentional injuries” (which include drug overdoses) jumped by 6.7 percent.
Muennig and others have pointed to America’s obesity epidemic and the rising rates of opioid abuse as factors contributing to this spike in mortality, but he suggested that they don’t completely explain it. “If you actually dissect the data, neither of those arguments hold,” he said. “This report slams it home that this is really a mystery.”
Or is it?
As Jesse Singal notes in New York magazine, decades of wage stagnation have pushed millions of middle-age workers to an economic — and psychological — precipice. All it takes to push them over is a single piece of misfortune. If you pass what Singal calls the “one-bad-break test,” you have a chance to survive; if not, you could find yourself spiraling downward toward any number of disasters.
“The one-bad-break test states simply that you can tell a lot about a society by what happens when its economically vulnerable members encounter a majorly bad break. That bad break can be anything — an injury, the sudden need to take in and care for an ailing relative, an unexpected layoff — and the effects of a single bad break vary tremendously depending on who you are, where you live, and what resources you have access to.
“In societies that function well, there are various safety nets in place to prevent a bad break from leading to a tailspin for particularly vulnerable victims. Compared to many other rich nations, the U.S. is not such a society — all too often, when vulnerable Americans encounter a bad break, there’s nothing underneath them to stop their slide. Instead, devastation follows, sometimes in the form of bankruptcy and addiction and death.”
I was pondering this phenomenon in my typical sanguine manner this weekend when it occurred to me that I may have more skin in this game than I’ve been willing to admit. My Lovely Wife and I will be grandparents next spring, when our son, The Young Jarhead, and his new wife embark on a parenting journey that promises to be more challenging than most. TYJ’s ongoing training regimen will keep him at a distance from his new family for the better part of the next two years. And while his wife will have plenty of support from her extended family and friends during these long absences, she will surely encounter forces that will require every bit of her considerable spunk to overcome.
I’m confident that the two of them have enough of a safety net — including the socialist utopia that is the U.S. military — to avoid the one bad break that Singal describes. But the spring arrival of Grandchild No. 1 promises to add another set of concerns to those MLW and I have been lugging around since we inched out onto the parenting tightrope nearly 29 years ago.
And, despite my disdain for life-expectancy forecasts, I can’t help but wonder what that number is going to be in 2017.