Since the early 1900s it’s been taken for granted that our life expectancy, year by year, would keep getting longer and longer. What with improved knowledge of nutrition, better medical care and more of it, safer jobs…
And for a long time, the average person was living longer. But no more.
In many parts of the US and the world, life expectancy has begun to grow shorter. If you don’t want to be a victim of this disturbing trend, keep reading to find out what you need to do.
According to researchers at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the annual increase in our life expectancy has actually been slowing down since the 1950s — not just in the United States but all over the world.1
And while researchers say many factors have been identified as possibly contributing to this slowdown – and even reversal – in length of life, the experts can’t account for all of the change.
“It’s a rebuke to the idea that you can fix global health just by inventing more stuff,” says Hopkins researcher David Bishai. “New health technology has been essential to making strides in life expectancy, of course, but our predecessors in the 1950s were making faster progress with the basics of soap, sanitation and public health.”
According to the Hopkins study, in the 1950s life expectancy globally was lengthening by almost a year every year. But by the 2000s, progress had slowed worldwide to less than two-tenths of a year per year.
Some of the slowdown occurred because the easy improvements have been made – proper disposal of sewage, sanitary drinking water, eradication of major infectious diseases like smallpox and polio. After those big killers are taken care of, additional gains are harder to find.
Still the trend is disturbing when you consider that in some major countries, the average life is actually getting shorter.
Big factors leading to a drop in US life expectancy, say researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Urban Institute in Washington DC, are the growing use of drugs and alcohol and increases in suicides – and this is very prevalent among middle-aged white Americans and residents of rural towns and communities.2
These researchers point out that life expectancy in the US has decreased for the second year in a row. And the US life expectancy has fallen behind other countries. It is now 1.5 years shorter than in other developed countries. (These include countries in what is called the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – places like England, Australia, Japan, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland.)
Other Factors That Rob You of Years of Life
Air pollution has also been shown to be a crucial factor in the loss of longevity.
A study at the University of Texas-Austin demonstrates that, in the world as a whole, air pollution is shaving a year off the average life.3
“The fact that fine particle air pollution is a major global killer is already well known,” says researcher Joshua Apte, “And we all care about how long we live. What we found is that air pollution has a very large effect on survival – on average about a year globally.”
The very small particles of air pollution measured in this study enter deep into the lungs. They originate in industrial emissions, from farms and cars, trucks, fires and power plants. They’re linked to increased risks of cancer, heart attacks, strokes and lung diseases. The researchers estimate that 90,000 Americans die each year as a result of these toxins.
Other issues that are compromising life expectancy include:
- Liver diseases: Since 2008 there have been drastic increases in Americans dying at younger ages from liver diseases. The most common causes: drinking too much alcohol, infections with hepatitis C, and excess fat in the liver (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) which is associated with being overweight.4
- Suicide: Studies show that suicide attempts soared by 27% in all adults between 2004 and 2013. An unduly large number of these are in women younger than 50. Many of these suicides and suicide attempts have been linked to mood and anxiety disorders.5
Protect yourself from life-shortening issues
Several lifestyle habits can help you lower your risk that these developments will shorten your life.
A study at the University of Buffalo demonstrates that an exercise program can alter the brain’s dopamine reward system and help make it easier to avoid drug addiction.6 “Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise has been effective in preventing the start, increase and relapse of substance use in a number of categories, including alcohol, nicotine, stimulants and opioids,” says researcher Panayotis Thanos.
Exercise can also help alleviate depression and, in so doing, lower the risk of suicide. A study in Norway found that people who do an hour or two of aerobic exercise a week suffer a 44% reduced chance of depression.7 When you exercise, stay away from busy roads and other heavily polluted areas.
And if you want to lower your chances of succumbing to almost all these life-shortening factors, then eat more fruits and vegetables. That kind of diet (meanwhile avoiding fast food and junk food) is linked to a better mood, lower weight and a healthier liver.8,9 Eating fish has also been shown to help prolong life expectancy.10
Not convinced to change your ways? Consider this: Research of women in their 70s, conducted at the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University, found that those eating the most fruits and vegetables and who were physically active enjoyed longer life expectancy – they were eight times more likely to still be alive at the end of the five-year study.11
Eight times! That’s about as strong an effect as you’re ever going to find in a study like this.
I think it’s pretty clear that as the Hopkins researcher Dr. Bishai points out, we’re not going to invent our way out of our shrinking life expectancy. It’s going to take a healthier lifestyle. And there’s no time to waste getting started.