America’s indifference to its death crisis

Edward Luce:

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alling life expectancy is the last thing you would expect on a worry list about US national security. Yet when it is dropping as fast as it is in the US — Americans live almost five years less than the wealthy country average — even the Pentagon has to sit up. At 76, Americans now live shorter lives than their peers in China and only a year longer than the citizens of supposedly benighted Mexico. People in Japan, Italy and Spain, on the other hand, can expect to live until around 84. Your people’s longevity is the ultimate test of a system’s ability to deliver. Yet neither Democrats nor Republicans, presidents or legislators, seem too bothered.

Do Americans no longer care how long they live? The answer is obviously no. Yet concern about the country’s falling lifespan is barely reflected in its politics. It is as though Washington has turned a blind eye to the issue that captures the deepest trends behind America’s democratic woes. Terms such as “deaths of despair” and “obesity epidemic” are in frequent use. But America’s shortening lifespan seems too big a subject for Washington to acknowledge. US life expectancy has fallen in six of the last seven years and is now almost three years below what it was in 2014. The last time it fell in consecutive years was during the first world war. In most other democracies this would trigger a national debate.

What explains US indifference? The biggest drivers of America’s morbid trajectory are politically hard to confront — rising obesity, the opioid epidemic and Covid. Over 40 per cent of US adults are now classified as obese — a problem that keeps getting worse. More than half of American adults suffer from a chronic condition, most of which are associated with obesity, such as diabetes, hypertension and heart problems. A quarter suffer from two or more of these conditions. This partly explains America’s unusually high death rate from coronavirus. Almost two-thirds of Americans hospitalised with Covid were suffering from at least one pre-existing condition. The pathogen was working in fertile territory. America’s obesity rate is by far the highest among wealthy countries.

Choose life.