In the United States, life expectancy at birth, a common way to measure a country’s health, rose steadily for decades — it was 69.9 years for a baby born in 1959 and 79.1 years for one born in 2014.
Then it dropped for three consecutive years.
That did not surprise Stephen Bezruchka, a University of Washington health services researcher who wrote about the deterioration of U.S. health status, as compared with other nations, in the 2012 Annual Review of Public Health. Nearly two decades ago, Bezruchka came up with the idea of a “Health Olympics,” in which the nations of the world compete on life expectancy. Japan is the current champion, with a life expectancy of 84.5 years, far ahead of the U.S.
Earlier this year, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that U.S. life expectancy ticked up slightly — by 0.1 year — in 2018. (There are several ways to estimate life expectancy, which yield slightly different numbers. But the trends remain consistent.) We checked in with Bezruchka, who is also a medical doctor, for an update on his perspective. Have we turned the corner?
The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.
How are we doing in the Health Olympics?
If the race is how long we will live, the most recent data published last December in the United Nations Human Development Report, which ranks countries by length of life, puts us at number 36, meaning that 35 nations have longer lives than the U.S.
A baby born in the U.S. in 2018 has a life expectancy of 78.9 years. Is life expectancy the most important indicator of a nation’s health?
It’s the easiest one for most people to understand. I think infant mortality — death under the age of 1 — may be a better indicator. But since everybody that you talk to has survived infancy, that’s not so meaningful to them. It’s the same with child mortality.
The U.S. has a child mortality problem?
In the U.S., the child mortality rate — that is, the proportion of children who die before their fifth birthday per 1,000 live births — is 6. Compare that with Slovenia’s child mortality rate of 2.6, which shows what is achievable.
If the U.S. had Slovenia’s child mortality rate, we would have 43 fewer children die every day in this country. That shows we tolerate a large number of deaths that needn’t occur.
I have my students do this calculation because they are more likely to believe it if they look up the data themselves. I choose Slovenia because it has a longer life expectancy than we do and it’s also the country of birth of our First Lady. Slovenia doesn’t have the lowest child mortality rate, by the way; Finland and some other countries have lower rates.
Read the rest of Lola Butcher’s article here at The Week Magazine