A Life or Death Emergency!

This morning while I was getting ready and half listening to the news, Natalie Morales said something that caught my attention. I grabbed the remote, hit rewind, (DVR is the best invention ever) and heard her say that the life expectancy today is actually LOWER for people in hundreds of US counties than in was in 1997.

She was talking about a report by Dr. Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation [1]. After studying life expectancy for the last ten years, he found that eighty percent of counties in the USA have fallen behind the life expectancy average of the top ten countries in the world. In case you’re wondering, we’re not one of them. In fact, with an average life expectancy of 78, we’re in 36th place [2].

A thousand years ago, man had a life expectancy of about 20, placing the average mid life crisis right during puberty. No wonder they call it the Dark Ages. For hundreds of years life remained brutal and life expectancy remained right around the current drinking age. In the 1900s, advances in medicine, society, and technology led to increases in life expectancy every decade. In fact, life expectancy from 1900 – 2000 rose by 63.8%.

So what the heck happened?

The researched showed that life expectancy for males in Fairfax County, Virginia was actually longer than that of men in Switzerland, France, or Japan. The study further cited that men in Collier County, Florida as living on average ten years longer than men living in 4 Mississippi Counties.

The obvious assumption for most, is that in areas of poverty, there’s inadequate access to healthcare. But the study showed that this is simply not the case, neither race nor income was directly linked.

The study actually showed it’s more likely that obesity rates, smoking, and other preventable risk factors are to blame. And thus for the first time in history life expectancy is being reduced by our vices.

So why do we choose to kill ourselves?

I suppose the only logical correlation I see is that stress is the largest factor in how long we live. Science shows us that our stress is simply a biological response that our body uses to drive us to overcome difficult situations. However, in today’s day and age where survival of the fittest is less important than supersizing to us, this biological response could be the death of us.

As a doctor, it frustrates me to see a strain on our healthcare system from preventable illness. Despite spending more per capita than any other nation on health, eight out of every 10 counties are not keeping pace in terms of health outcomes [3]. I have always felt that as a society we should try to prevent illness rather than try to cure it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure what the answer is to the stress we’re all feeling. Hey, at least I live in Florida……

[1] “Falling behind: life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context” > Sandeep C Kulkarni, Alison Levin-Rector, Majid Ezzati and Christopher JL Murray

[2] Population Health Metrics2011, 9:16 doi:10.1186/1478-7954-9-16 Published: 15 June 2011