The title of today’s blog comes from the opening line of Derek Thompson’s article, Why Americans Die So Much, published in The Atlantic.

In the article, Thompson observes that U.S. life spans over the past 30 years are falling behind those of other similarly wealthy countries. The author looks at a September 2021 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research which shows that Americans die earlier than their European counterparts in every age group. American babies are more likely to die before they turn 5 compared to Europeans; American teens are more likely to die before they reach 20 than their European peers, and American adults are more likely to die before they reach 65, compared to Europeans. Overall, Europeans have a longer life expectancy.

And the study’s numbers go back several decades. The results are not due to recent COVID deaths, or the recent drug overdose crisis.

Thompson says that finding a straightforward explanation is hard. One factor is gun violence, which is more prevalent in the U.S. Another might be motor vehicle accidents: Americans drive more than residents of other countries.

The study makes three important findings:

  1. European mortality rates are consistent between rich and poor. This is said to be due to health improvements, which are better disseminated in Europe. The poor in America do not all enjoy the benefit of such health improvements. In America, black teenagers in the poorest areas are twice as likely to die before they turn 20 than those in the richest areas. The effect of poverty on lifespan is substantially higher in the U.S.

 

  1. Overall, Europeans live longer than Americans, even when comparing rich Americans to rich Europeans. This, it is said, “says something negative about the overall health system of the United States”.

 

  1. On a brighter note, longevity amongst Black Americans is improving, and the gap between white life expectancy and Black life expectancy is closing. This is said to be due to advances in science and technology, which are now more readily accessible to all. In addition, reductions in air pollution have helped, as Black Americans were more likely to live in more polluted areas. Other factors contributing to the closing of the gap include increased drug deaths (more prevalent amongst white Americans), and a decline in homicides, which disproportionally kill Black Americans.

Thompson concludes his article by calling for greater income redistribution and universal health care. “For decades, U.S. politicians on the right have resisted calls for income redistribution and universal insurance under the theory that inequality was a fair price to pay for freedom. But now we know that the price of inequality is paid in early death – for Americans of all races, ages and income levels.”

Thank you for reading.

Paul Trudelle