It was about the third story in the newcast one evening this past week, a few pages into most newspapers, and this Sunday it was below the line in the “Week in Review” in the New York Times. The story read that the assumption that each American generation would outlive the preceeding may not be true for all Americans. Since 1933 the average American lived to 61 years. In 2005 the average age had climbed to 78 years. A remarkable gain (only 42nd in the world though), but this seemingly ever increasing trend may have stopped and even reversed for some. Yes, rising obesity rates, smoking, sedentary lifestyles, and pollution have slowed life spans, but it was thought that cardiac advances, medical miracles, better food supplies, and the ever advancing human condition outweighed our bad habits. But what the report out of Harvard, and published in PLoS Medicine, shows is that there is an increasing lifespan disparity between the poor and the rich despite our bad habits. The “least deprived” don’t see this dying young trend, but the “most deprived” do. This gap has always been present. Wealth is a known indicator – along with education – for improved health, but the gap between the two groups has been growing. Since 1983 the gap has grown by 3.3 years in women and 5.4 years in men. In large swaths of the country the life span is shrinking. The concentration of this trend is located in the deep south, Appalachia, and around the southern Mississippi River. The map says it all and it is disturbing. As the New York Times points out – these findings give creedence to John Edwards stump speech, “Two Americas.” The second America can now expect to live shorter lives than their parents.
Two side notes:
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) backed up much of this research. The CBO pointed out that the social security benefit is becoming less and less progressive as the rich live longer and reap more benefits, while the poor die younger seeing less benefits.
Countries with large wealth discrepancy (large gap between the richest and the poorest), regardless of overall wealth, do worse on almost all measures of health than those countries that have smaller wealth discrepancies. Further, the richest in America are sicker than the richest in more equitable societies. What does this say about or values, priorities, and way of life? I’ll leave that for discussions, but it gives one pause to think that maybe our “survival of the fittest” mentality has its downside.