Part of the American dream is that each generation will do better than the one preceding it. Parents always hope their children will be smarter, richer, and healthier than themselves.
But in recent years that seems less likely. For one thing, they won’t all be richer. Of all the 30-year-old Americans in the work force, only half are earning more than their parents did at the same age.
And the rising generation may not live as long as their predecessors. In 2020 the life expectancy for Americans was shortened by 1.8 years, according to the Center for Disease Control. And in 2021, it lost almost another entire year.
In a ranking of 40 nations by their life expectancy by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, America came in 28th.
A million COVID deaths in the U.S. have contributed to the decline in our predicted lifespan. But the CDC says that the coronavirus accounts for only three quarters of the decline. Eleven percent of the loss was attributed to accidents and drugs deaths, 4 percent to homicide, 2.5 percent to diabetes, and 2.3 percent to alcohol-related liver disease.
We are also dealing with some health risks that are more common in the U.S. Seventy percent of Americans are overweight, and 36 percent are obese, a condition that can lead to heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and some cancers. Around 40,000 Americans die every year in automotive accidents. (There are 12.4 deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S., which is notably better than the global average of 18.2.)
Life expectancy in the U.S. is also affected by infant mortality, which is high for a developed country. For every 1,000 live births in the United States, 5.4 infants die. In comparison, the number in Germany is 3.1. In the Czech Republic, 2.3. And in Norway, 1.8.
The U.S. also has the highest maternal mortality rate among developed countries. The rise has many causes: childbirth at later ages, higher incidence of unplanned pregnancies, increased rate of caesarian section deliveries, and many mothers without insurance (America being the only country in the developed world without universal healthcare; almost 10 percent of Americans have no health coverage).
Taken altogether, the data offers a depressing picture of America’s future. But the idea that Americans’ lives will get continually shorter presumes the U.S. will follow a different course than it took from 1900, when the average American lived just 47 years.
In that year, health conditions were much worse. Americans lived with polluted skies, water, and food. City streets stank of rotting garbage, horse manure, and sewage from inadequate sewer systems. Lack of sanitation and limited effective medicine led to thousands dying from diseases like whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and measles.
Since 1900, health and safety laws, improved food processing, effective water and sewage technology, and modern medicines expanded the average life span by 30 years.
These changes came about because of the work of scientists, reformers, legislators, journalists, and many other people. People like Sara Josephine Baker, a physician who worked to reduce infant mortality in New York’s slums. She taught mothers how to better care for their infants and developed a nutritional formula. And she tracked down and caught Typhoid Mary — twice.
People like social worker Jane Addams, who led a campaign in Chicago to remove disease-breeding debris from the streets.
People like novelist Upton Sinclair, whose book The Jungle started a public outcry against unsanitary working conditions and the exploitation of women and children in the meat packing business, and led to the federal Meat Inspection Act and Pure Food and Drug Act.
People like Drs. Grace Eldering and Pearl Kendrick of the Michigan Department of Health, who, in their free time, collected specimens and isolated bacteria to develop a vaccine for whooping cough.
People like Nathan Straus, part-owner of Macy’s department store. Learning that milk from tubercular cows was infecting children in New York, he set up “depots” where milk was pasteurized and sold to poor families below cost.
America’s public health problems today seem as difficult to address as smallpox and tuberculosis once were. But, just as then, hardworking, inventive, compassionate Americans will not stop looking for solutions and cures.
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