Life expectancy in the United States dropped in 2008, the first full year of a grueling recession that saw mixed effects, both good and bad, on the nation’s health, according to new government data.
Overall life expectancy fell to 77.8 years, down slightly from 77.9 in 2007, the year that the recession began. In a country like the U.S., the drop is small but ominous, public health experts said.
“The decline in life expectancy is a wake-up call,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “It is a call for action.”
Death rates due to high blood pressure, chronic respiratory disease and suicide all rose in 2008, though health officials cautioned it’s still too early to tie those effects directly to the recession.
The National Center for Health Statistics report offered good news as well. Death rates from many serious diseases fell, fueled by declines in heart disease, cancer, diabetes and, especially, stroke, which moved from third to fourth place on the list of annual killers.
The rate of deaths from motor vehicle accidents dropped sharply from 2007, homicide death rates went down and fewer people died from workplace injuries, all among surprising benefits that economist Christopher J. Ruhm has linked to previous downturns.
“People are probably exercising a bit more, eating a bit healthier because they’re not eating out so much, maybe they’re sleeping more,” explained Ruhm, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, whose research on the health effects of economic shifts has drawn wide attention. “Those modifiable lifestyle factors change in a recession.”
However, he and other health officials cautioned against drawing firm conclusions from a single year of data.
“A one-year change doesn’t really establish a trend,” said Richard Rogers, a professor of sociology and director of the population program at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “But I think it’s important to take notice and see what’s there.”
2.4 million deaths in 2008
Overall, 2,473,018 people died in 2008, which was 49,306 more deaths than in 2007, the report said.
That resulted in an age-adjusted mortality rate of 758.7 deaths per 100,000 people, down slightly from the 2007 rate of 760.2 deaths per 100,000 people.
More telling, however, was the change in life expectancy, officials said. It fell overall and for whites, but rose to a new high of 70.2 years for black men. Closing the gap between races is good, but an overall loss is alarming, Mokdad said.
The U.S. ranks 38th or 39th for life expectancy in the world, behind less-developed countries such as Chile, Mokdad noted.
Heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death, accounted for nearly half of all deaths in 2008. Still, mortality rates for heart disease fell by 2.2 percent and cancer rates declined by 1.6 percent, the report said.
A 3.8 percent drop in death rates from stroke helped nudge it lower on the list of the top 15 causes of death. Stroke had been the third leading cause of death for five decades, always trailing heart disease and cancer.
Instead, deaths from chronic lower respiratory diseases climbed into the third spot, partly because there's a new method of calculating those deaths, the report said. The rate of those deaths climbed by 7.8 percent.
The decline in stroke deaths extends a trend that started a decade ago, the result of concentrated effort to improve prevention, diagnosis and treatment, said Dr. Ralph Sacco, a neurologist and president of the American Heart Association. Still, he said, there’s more work to be done.
“I think of it as good news that stroke deaths are declining,” he said. “But we are still very much concerned about what the future will hold for cardiovascular disease and stroke.”
Accident, homicide deaths down
Death rates also declined for other causes in 2008. Diabetes deaths fell by 3.1 percent, accidents dropped by 3.5 percent and homicides fell by 3.3 percent.
As far as the accidents and the homicides, Ruhm, the economist, said that people drive less during a recession, which leaves fewer cars on the road to cause accidents. And contrary to popular fears, even criminals cut back when times are tough.
At the same time, mortality rates rose for a number of serious problems. Suicide rates rose by 2.7 percent, flu and pneumonia rates climbed by 4.9 percent and the rate of deaths from Alzheimer’s disease jumped by 7.5 percent.
That’s partly caused by an aging population, partly by improvements in other diseases and partly by investment in medical research costs, said William B. Thies, chief medical and science officer for the Alzheimer’s Association in Chicago.
“Diseases where we’ve had significant investment of federal dollars are going down,” Thies said, noting that Alzheimer’s funding pales compared to other major diseases.
“Everyone who doesn’t have a stroke is a customer of ours.”