The New Great Divide: Longevity

Rich vs. PoorThe United States of America have often been called a divided nation, separated by race, class, political affiliation, values, you name it. Now, one study has found that we are also drifting apart in terms of life expectancy. While the better-off can hope to live longer than ever, the rest falls behind and may even die at a younger age than their parents.

Educated white males seem to have the edge on longevity. Conversely, the least educated and often poorest Americans, regardless of gender or race, are moving in the opposite direction. The average life expectancy for them has fallen by four years since 1990.

The Well-Off Live Longer
The Poor Die Younger

The disparities are most dramatic between highly educated white men and the least educated black men, about 14 years, according to Dr. S. Jay Olshansky, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health and lead author of the study report.

These widening gaps within our society have lead to “at least two Americas, if not multiple others, in terms of life expectancy, demarcated by level of education and racial-group membership,” said Dr. Olshansky.

The causes behind these trends are not altogether clear, although unhealthy lifestyles like alcohol and drug abuse, smoking, poor diets, obesity and lack of health care coverage are among the most likely factors.

A separate study predicts that obesity, along with multiple related diseases, will continue to rise across the nation, but especially in states with the poorest populations. The report, sponsored by Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), concluded that the numbers of diet and lifestyle-related illnesses could increase tenfold by 2020 and double again by 2030.

Currently, more than 25 million Americans suffer from diabetes, 27 million from chronic heart disease, 68 million from hypertension and 50 million have arthritis. Every year, almost 800,000 have a stroke, and about one in three deaths from cancer are related to weight problems, poor eating habits and physical inactivity.

While many Americans are becoming more health-conscious, the majority continues on a dismal path. “This study shows us two futures of America’s health,” said Dr. Risa Lavizzo, president and CEO of RWJF. “At every level of government, we must pursue policies that preserve health, prevent disease and reduce health care costs,” she said. “Nothing less is acceptable.”

Treating obesity and related diseases already costs an estimated $147 to $210 billion annually in health care, and these numbers will increase by another $48 to $66 billion if current trends persist, according to TFAH. The only way to change course is “to invest in obesity prevention programs that match the severity of the problem,” said Jeff Levi, TFAH’s executive director, at a news conference for the study release. The report included a series of policy recommendations such as swift implementation of existing legislation (e.g. the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act) as well as creation of additional prevention strategies and action plans.

Government can definitely play an important role in the fight against the obesity epidemic, said Dr. Thomas A. Farley, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Government regulations are a justifiable option when they lead to preventing excess calorie consumption and obesity-related health problems and deaths, he wrote in an article for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

In this country, we have long treated lifestyle choices as personal matters that should not be regulated or interfered with, even if they produce undesirable results. It’s a part of our individualistic culture. There is much to be said for that, but, as it is becoming increasingly apparent on so many levels, our attitudes have consequences, and sometimes they make the difference between life and death.

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