To Live a Long Life

Americans have one of the lowest average life expectancies among developed countries in the world and this reflects on shortcomings in their healthcare system.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In Hong Kong, the average life expectancy is 85 years. In Belgium, the life expectancy is 82 years. In the United States, it’s 79 years. Though 85 and 79 seem close, the gap between these two numbers tells a greater story than a six-year difference. One may expect life expectancy in the U.S., which is considered to be one of the most powerful countries in the world, to be higher than 79. However, it ranks only 46th according to the latest United Nations Population Division estimates, the lowest among developed countries.

In general, a variety of social and economic factors determine the life expectancy of a population. Typically, the richer and more educated the individual is, the longer they are predicted to live. This is why countries with higher Gross Domestic Products (GDPs), like Japan and France, tend to have a significantly higher average life expectancy than countries with lower GDPs such as Haiti and Afghanistan, both of which hold an average life expectancy of less than 65.

The average life expectancy of an American has been getting shorter since 2019. An important factor behind this change is the COVID-19 pandemic. At its peak, the virus caused hundreds of thousands of deaths across the world and decreased the life expectancies of many countries. In the U.S. particularly, minority groups, which included Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous people, were hit the hardest. Many individuals from these groups lived in communities that were not able to offer the best medical assistance due to limited funding in their respective communities and racist policies like redlining, which is when companies make their services considerably less convenient to non-white customers. These eventually caused a sharp decline in the life expectancy of minorities, further emphasizing how one’s social and economic conditions closely follow their life expectancy. While the average life expectancy of many other wealthy countries has since recovered from the worst of the pandemic, the US has still not completely gone back to its pre-pandemic number.

A reason behind this problem lies in the health situation of the country even before the pandemic. America has faced higher rates of chronic disease and drug use when compared to other wealthy countries for years. Six out of 10 Americans live with a chronic illness such as heart disease, cancer, or diabetes, and the high rates of obesity levels prevalent amongst Americans often contribute to these fatal complications. Additionally, the ongoing opioid crisis has led to 69,000 deaths in 2020 alone, highlighting a deep-rooted issue of drug abuse in the country. Yet, the rising costs of healthcare have led to many people not receiving sufficient medical care.

This situation highlights a major flaw in the American healthcare system: the lack of universal healthcare, something that many other wealthy countries have. Universal healthcare means that all people have the right to health services even when in financial hardships. Currently, in the US, it costs around $200 for a forearm X-ray and around $10,000 for delivering a baby. There have been efforts to create programs close to achieving healthcare for all, such as Obamacare, but instituting a solid strategy for a universal healthcare system in the US has become a more political concept and possible plans would have to go through a series of committees and conference rooms until they could be considered.

Recent political decisions such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade have led to concerns about increased child poverty and pregnancy-related deaths, both contributing to a shorter life expectancy. Additionally, the federal government’s lack of action in the war on drugs and the opioid crisis are also important examples of how government activity has a significant impact on determining life expectancy. Since President Nixon first declared a “war on drugs,” drug abuse has still been a prevalent issue in the country over the last fifty years. Analysts have pointed to how it is really the state and local governments that are fighting the war rather than the federal government, thus calling for action against drugs on a greater scale.

Overall, the factors determining life expectancy fall under what we as individuals can and cannot control. The genetics and the socioeconomic positions we are born with may not be in our control, but how we go about our lives is—this includes the habits and routines that constitute our daily lives. Implementing certain practices while avoiding others will create a better lifestyle that guarantees a longer life. Research has shown that staying active, exercising for at least 15 minutes every day, and maintaining a proper diet are all linked to a longer and healthier life. Meanwhile, avoiding smoking and drinking alcohol are strongly encouraged and have shown to increase one’s years, as both habits drive fatal diseases such as liver cancer correlated to drinking.

Politics and the changes that occur on the local, state, and national levels also play important roles in how long we live. Though they may seem out of our control, participation in our government and increasing awareness of issues such as the opioid epidemic and universal healthcare are promising steps that we can take.

A nation’s average life expectancy says plenty about the country itself. Despite our high GDP and powerful ranking in the world, the United State’s healthcare system doesn’t live up to our reputation as a world leader. Though drastic changes to our government such as instituting a universal healthcare system and court rulings are very difficult and will take time, the most immediate changes ensuring a longer life are the ones we can make in our own lives.