A person born in 2015 can expect to live, on average, 78.8 years — 36.5 days fewer than a person born in 2014. That decline (0.1 percent) may seem small, but it’s highly significant, particularly since U.S. life expectancy changed little in the previous three years.
As S. Jay Olshansky, a public health researcher at the University of Illinois–Chicago, told Associated Press reporter Mike Stobbe, “With four years, you’re starting to see some indication of something a little more ominous.”
Other experts agree. “This is a big deal,” University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill demographer Philip Morgan told National Public Radio reporter Rob Stein. “There’s not a better indicator of well-being than life expectancy. The fact that it’s leveling off in the U.S. is a striking finding.”
The last time the U.S. saw a decline in life expectancy was in 1993, when the country was in the midst of the deadliest years of the AIDS epidemic.
Increase greatest among whites
There were 2,712,630 official deaths in the U.S. in 2015 — 86,212 more than in 2014, according to the new report.
And, yes, the population is aging. But the age-adjusted death rate, which takes into account that the total population is older or younger in any given year, rose 1.2 percent in 2015.
The increase in the age-adjusted death rate in 2015 was highest among white women (1.6 percent), followed by white men (1.0 percent) and black men (0.9 percent). No significance change in the death rate was observed among Latinos or black women. The rates for other minorities were not reported.
The increase in the death rate among white men and women supports the findings of a startling study published last year, which found that the death rate for white middle-aged Americans has been climbing an average of a half percent a year since 1998, after more than 40 previous years of decline.
The authors of that study noted that alcohol and drug abuse (mostly involving prescription pain killers and heroin), suicide and chronic liver diseases (which are often caused by alcohol abuse) appear to be the driving factors behind the rise in the death rate among middle-aged whites — factors whose source might be found in the growing economic insecurity among America’s middle-class households.
The new NCHS report suggests, however, that the reasons for the drop in life expectancy — at least, the immediate health-related ones — are broader. Death rates rose in 2015 for eight out of the 10 leading causes of death: heart disease (up 0.9 percent), chronic lower respiratory diseases (2.7 percent), unintentional injuries (6.7 percent), stroke (3.0 percent), Alzheimer’s disease (15.7 percent), diabetes (1.9 percent), kidney disease (1.5 percent) and suicide (2.3 percent).
The only decrease in the age-adjusted death rates among the 10 leading causes of death was for cancer, which dropped 1.7 percent. The death rate for influenza and pneumonia did not change significantly.
Women continue to live longer than men. The life expectancy for girls born in 2015 was 81.2 years (0.1 years lower than in 2014), compared to 76.3 years (0.2 years lower than in 2014) for boys.
A woman who was 65 years old in 2015 could expect, on average, to live 20.6 more years, while her 65-year-old male counterpart could expect to live another 18 years.
The U.S. infant mortality rate was also up slightly — 589.5 deaths per 100,000 births in 2015 compared to 582.1 per 100,000 births in 2014 — but the HCHS researchers say the rise wasn’t statistically significant.
Congenital malformations remain the leading cause of infant deaths, followed by low birth weight and sudden infant death syndrome.
Of course, the drop in life expectancy in 2015 could be a one-time “fluke.” Life expectancy may rise in 2016. Indeed, an NCHS statistician told NPR that a preliminary analysis from the first two quarters of 2016 suggests that may be the case.
Let’s hope so. This has been a bleak enough year already.