American's life expectancy dipped last year, raising public health concerns

Life expectancy stopped increasing last year, according to the CDC.

Decades of rising life expectancy in the United States came to a halt last year, with rates of every leading cause of death increasing but cancer, according to new data released Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Such trends as the drug overdose epidemic and sedentary lifestyles pulled back some of the gains from medical advances, public health campaigns and better nutrition, health experts say.

An American born last year was expected to live an average of 78 years and 9 1/2 months, according to the CDC data. An American born in 2014 could expect to live about month longer.

That retreat is small compared to the gains of the six decades or so. Life expectancy in 1950 was just over 68 years.

However, the United States continues to rank below dozens of other high-income countries in life expectancy, according to the World Bank. It is highest in Japan, at nearly 84 years.

The CDC data reflected an unusual upturn in the death rate from the nation's leading killer, heart disease. Death rates also increased for chronic lower lung disease, accidental injuries, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, kidney disease and suicide. Deaths from influenza and pneumonia grew but not by a significant amount.

Heart disease has been buoyed by Americans' lack of activity and eating habits, as well as stress and lack of sleep, said Dr. Michael Miller, professor of cardiovascular medicine in the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the University of Maryland Medical System's Center for Preventive Cardiology.

Miller advocates for what he calls a "return to the simple life." That includes moving more during the day by stretching during TV commercials, walking around the office during breaks at work, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator at the office. It also includes sleeping more at night and coping with stress by listening to music or dropping cinnamon in the morning coffee to create a pleasing smell.

"It's not always easy to make changes, but these are simple things," he said. "We are not too old to start."

Other problems may prove tougher. Cancer, the nation's No. 2 killer, offered the only clear drop among the killers, which Miller said may be linked to a continuing decrease in smoking.

The biggest jump in death rates was related to unintentional injuries, the nation's third leading killer, that include opioid overdoses, as well as car crashes related to distracted and drunk driving.

Andrea Gielen, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research & Policy, said a lot is known about how to tackle some of the problems, such as encouraging seat belt use and car seats to lower car crash deaths, and enforcement of distracted driving laws. Addiction treatment works when it's available, she said.

"I'm of course disturbed the rates went up," Gielen said. "But shining light on public health problems that we have solutions for is a good thing. I really hope people don't say there is nothing we can do about that."

The CDC report did not offer a geographic breakdown, or analysis of death based on education or income. But other research has shown death rates are rising sharply for poorer people — particularly white people — in rural areas but not wealthier and more highly educated people and people on the coasts.

The latest state health data shows Maryland, a relatively affluent state, maintains an edge on life expectancy. It was 79.8 years in 2014. But there was stark geographic disparity.

Montgomery County had the highest life expectancy at 84.6 years and was followed by Howard County at 83 years. All of the Baltimore metro area had life expectancy exceeding 79 years, except for Baltimore City, which had the state's lowest life expectancy at 74.1 years.

Van T. Mitchell, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, singled out the opioid epidemic.

"Data show fatal overdoses, including those from heroine and fentanyl, are a real threat to substance users," said Mitchell, who encouraged people to call for help on the Maryland Crisis Hotline at 800-422-0009.

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Health Commissioner said zip codes have become a key determinant of health. Those that live in the poorest city neighborhoods live an average of 20 fewer years than those in the most well off. She has campaigned aggressively for more and early investment in public health to combat the disparities.

"This report underscores the importance of investment in public health," she said. "There are hundreds of studies that show how early investment saves lives, increases life expectancy and reduces costs. It's worrisome that we are going in the wrong direction."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

meredith.cohn@balstsun.com

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