American Life Expectancy Would Be Worse — But For The U.S. Health Care System

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just revealed some disturbing news — life expectancy in the United States has declined for the third consecutive year. The last time that happened was a century ago, during a four-year stretch that included World War I and a global flu pandemic.

The chief reason for falling life expectancy? The growing prevalence of drug overdoses and suicide. These “deaths of despair” represent a public health crisis. But we shouldn’t read them as an indictment of our health care system.

In fact, the decline in life expectancy in the United States could’ve been a lot worse. Death rates for our country’s biggest killers, cancer and heart disease, are falling. For that, we can thank our market-oriented health care system, which does a far better job treating patients when they become sick than the government-run systems in other countries do.

Deaths Of Despair

Last year, more than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose. And over the past 18 years, the age-adjusted death rate from overdoses has more than tripled.

Suicides have grown more common, too. Between 2016 and 2017, the age-adjusted death rate from suicide increased 3.7%. Since 1999, suicide rates have gone up in every state but one — and have surged by more than 30% in half of all states.

As Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, put it, “These sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

For comparison, consider the experiences of Canada and the United Kingdom. Fewer than 4,000 Canadians died of opioid-related causes in 2017. England and Wales reported a similar number of drug-related deaths in 2016.

That means that the drug overdose death rate in the United States, relative to population, is more than double Canada’s — and over three times that in England and Wales.

Overshadowing Health Care Successes

The epidemic of drug overdoses and suicides in the United States overshadows the tremendous progress our health care system has made in reducing mortality in other areas.

Take heart disease, the No. 1 killer in the United States for decades. Between 2000 and 2017, the death rate from heart disease decreased by more than 35%. Last year, there were 63,000 fewer deaths from heart disease than in 2000 — even though there were 400,000 more deaths overall.

Our progress against heart disease over the past half-century is even more remarkable. The death rate from the disease last year was one-third the death rate in 1969.

The United States has also made tremendous gains against cancer, the second-most prolific killer of Americans. From 2016 to 2017, the overall mortality rate from cancer declined 2.1%. And since its peak in 1991, the U.S. cancer death rate has fallen nearly 30%.

Cancer kills more people, as a share of the population, in other countries. Canada’s cancer mortality rate is 198 deaths per 100,000 people — 30% higher than the corresponding rate in the United States. The United Kingdom’s cancer death rate is 80% higher than in the United States.

Socialist Systems Fare Worse

Part of the problem is that the government-run health systems in the United Kingdom and Canada have proven unable to meet the needs of their patients. Over the last year in England, 28,000 cancer patients whose doctors gave them urgent referrals had to wait more than two months to start treatment. Almost 11,000 of those patients waited longer than three months.

Canada limits access to cutting-edge cancer medications to keep costs down. One study conducted by University of Pittsburgh researchers looked at 45 cancer drugs approved in the United States between 2009 and 2013. Medicare covered all of them. Canada’s health care system covered just 13.

The recent decline in life expectancy in the United States is a tragedy. But it says little about our nation’s health care system. In fact, our success battling the likes of heart disease and cancer indicates that our market-oriented system deserves much of the credit for the fact that we’re living nearly a decade longer than we did 50 years ago.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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