According to data released by the National Center for Health Statistics, men now have a life expectancy of 76.3 years in 2015 which dropped from 76.5 years in 2014 while women from 81.3 to 81.2.
The initial figures show an increase in several causes of death, especially heart disease, dementia and accidental infant deaths.
Life expectancy last went down during the peak of the HIV/Aids crisis in 1993.
It slightly increased but remained stagnant in most of the years since World War Two, then steadily gained a to a little more than 68 years in 1950.
It also declined in 1980, after a severe outbreak of flu.
Overall life expectancy for men and women is now 78.8 years, a decrease of 0.1 years from 2014.
“This is unusual,” lead author Jiaquan Xu, an epidemiologist at the NCHS, told AFP news agency. “2015 is kind of different from every year. It looks like much more death than we have seen in the last few years.”
The data was drawn mainly from 2015 death certificates.
Increasing Death Rates
Furthermore, a 0.1 years drop in life expectancy means people are dying, on average, a little over a month earlier – or two months earlier for men.
To compare it with the other two drops in the past three decades, the decrease from 1992 to 1993 was 0.3 years, and the decrease from 1979 to 1980 was 0.2%.
Experts are also concerned about the trend, showing largely flat for the past three years, rather than a steady rise which has dominated since the 1970s.
Factors causing the Decline
According to the report, the figures show a variety of factors. Death rates have increased for eight out of 10 of the leading causes of death: heart disease (0.9% rise), chronic lower respiratory diseases (2.7% rise), unintentional injuries (6.7% rise), stroke (3% rise), Alzheimer’s disease (15.7% rise), diabetes (1.9% rise), kidney disease (1.5% rise) and suicide (2.3% rise).
Heart disease is the major cause of decline – resulting to more than four times as many deaths as each of the others – so even the relatively small 0.9% increase in the heart disease death rate is a major contributor.
Two of the major increases were deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and also an 11.3% rise in the rate of death for babies under one due to unintentional injuries.
Experts point to obesity levels, an aging population and economic challenge as wider factors.
Upswing of Accidental Infant Death Rate
“Most of them died from accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed,” said Jiaquan Xu.
Michael Grosso, medical director at NorthwellHealth’s Huntington Hospital in New York, told AFP that these deaths would include car crashes, falls, suffocation, and fires, and therefore, complex to explain.
He linked the increase to “social stressors”, such as financial pressures and addiction.
“The dramatic upswing in the use of opiates and narcotic use across our country is potentially a big factor in driving a phenomenon like accidental injury,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the country is “in midst of an opioid overdose epidemic”, with a total of 28,000 people killed in 2014. There is no data available yet for 2015, though the 6.7% rise in deaths caused by “unintentional injuries” may be partly associated.
Moreover, cancer death rate decreased 1.7%, which is significant as cancer is the second major cause of death, causing almost as many fatalities as heart disease.
Advance research for cancer treatments, campaigns on public education and awareness as well as early detection made a huge impact to decrease cancer death rates.
How is the US different to other countries?
According to the most recent 2014 data, the US ranks 28th out of 43 OECD countries, trailing next to the Czech Republic, Chile and Costa Rica, and just above Turkey, Poland, and Estonia.
While the World Health Organization reported that, “the world’s highest life expectancy is in Japan, which is well known for the longevity of its elderly citizens. People there live, on average, to 83.7 years, followed by Switzerland and Spain on 83.3.”
The world’s lowest life expectancy is in Sierra Leone, at 50.1 years.