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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, December 01, 2018 1:00 am

'Deaths of despair' shorten nation's life expectancy rate

When U.S. life expectancy last went into the kind of extended decline reflected in statistics released this week, the nation was part of a world war and a pandemic. In 1918, as World War I was ending, life expectancy was 39 years and a third of the nation's deaths were attributed to influenza or pneumonia.

Life expectancy in America increased over the decades; it was the highest in the world during the 1960s. But a report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control this week confirms that the decline of the past few years is continuing, and that big increases in drug overdoses and suicides are partly to blame.

That such “deaths of despair” threaten to undermine a century of advancement on so many medical fronts may be hard to comprehend. Disease and accidents are hardly vanquished – the flu still kills thousands every year. But the sad reality is that more and more Americans are succumbing to causes that stem from mental health issues, their lifestyle choices and their outlook on life. Some health experts would count tobacco deaths in that category, too, along with at least part of the rising death toll from alcohol and diabetes.

In a statement Wednesday, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield called the newest data “a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Commissioner Dr. Deborah McMahan sounds the alarm about deaths of despair too. She has stressed that some of this self-inflicted damage is hitting our state and our community particularly hard, as when she noted in July that suicides in the county had risen 50 percent over the previous three years.

“This is not a good trajectory,” McMahan observed.