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Stayin' Alive
Americans Living Longer, But Not All Is Rosy

How do Americans die? Later than ever, it turns out. Over at Bloomberg, Matthew Klein has put together a neat collection of graphs illustrating American mortality and causes of death. The mortality rate has dropped around 17 percent since 1968. The trend towards longer life spans seems to have leveled off in the nineties, but only because the population has gotten a lot older. If you look just at younger Americans they not only continue to live longer year on year, but have seen the most gains towards life expectancy. Cancer and heart disease have become much less deadly recently. One-third of all deaths happen to those 85 and older.

These statistics are a testament to the successes of our health care system, despite all the problems plaguing it. The way we package and deliver care, the perverse incentives, and the opacity of prices are driving us bankrupt, but underneath all that that, we are still doing a decent job keeping people alive longer. However, there are a few troubling stats in the Bloomberg piece, and one stands out in particular: suicide and death by drug overdose have both risen dramatically, especially for 45-54 year olds. Beneath our higher life expectancy, something is amiss in life in 21st century America.

A second worry also comes out of the data: the health care system is the kind of thing that is endangered by its own success. Longer life expectancy is an achievement worth celebrating, but it will in turn put more pressure on the system. People will consume more care. Those who would otherwise have died of earlier natural causes, like heart disease, die of more prolonged illness like Alzheimer’s instead. We will need to be more creative than ever as we try to find ways to care for a population that is getting older and living longer.

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  • Andrew Allison

    “These statistics are a testament to the successes of our health care system, despite all the problems plaguing it.” and to the sheer lunacy of the recent post on the evils of fast food. WRT suicide and death by drug overdose, in order to draw any conclusions from the data we need to know how many drug overdoses are accidental and how many suicide. WRT the pressure put on healthcare by an aging population, perhaps we should be discussing the Dutch example (

    • Jim__L

      Human agency should NEVER be the ultimate cause of death.

      Death by not being able to afford medical treatment is actually a less risky, less prone to abuse, and easier to correct with efforts to drive down price, than Death Panels of any kind — even ones inside one’s own head.

      • Andrew Allison

        Quite apart from the fact that neither the post nor my comment make mention of death panels, don’t you think it a little presumptuous to make that decision for me or, e.g., anybody else who has a DNR? Simply put: does an individual (adult and of sound mind) have the right to refuse treatment that will prevent death, and if so, why can’t they choose an early one and avoid suffering? Just asking.

        • Jim__L

          Potential for malicious abuse for one, as I mentioned. For another, in many cases things aren’t as bad as an individual believes. An all too human tendency towards despair in cases where some surprisingly small (and surprisingly available) amount of help might turn things around, all militates against the idea that death is the answer.

          Putting legal obstacles between self-destructive inclinations and the realization of those inclinations is a good thing.

          • Andrew Allison

            “Simply put: does an individual (adult and of sound mind) have the right
            to refuse treatment that will prevent death, and if so, why can’t they
            choose an early one and avoid suffering? Just asking.”

          • Jim__L

            Such a cut and dried question, beloved of sociologists.

            Life is seldom so cut and dried.

  • John F. Hultquist

    My wife had open heart surgery with a
    valve replacement in Dec. 2009. There were many complications and
    nearly everyone thought she would die – she did not. So, the thing
    I want to comment on is the amazing medical professionals involved in
    her treatment. The medical part was like science fiction and/or
    miracles. This was our first serious exposure to modern medical

    In contrast, the paper work and
    “insurance” part was crazy and worthy of contempt. This part
    continues to deteriorate.

    The other theme of your post is a
    demographics issue. Not many are paying attention. A local public
    university (about 9,000 students) does not have anyone covering and
    researching the issues. We have a rapidly aging population and few
    are aware of the consequences.

    You have a good essay but the title is
    way too rosy.

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    • Corlyss

      This is spam. The board purports to be moderated and Lord knows they jump on mild oaths quick enough, yet this bit of trash has been up on at least two threads for at least six hours.

      • Damir Marusic

        Please flag these kinds of things.

        And contrary to what you say, the board is very lightly moderated—we simply don’t have the time to read everything. The moderation happens mostly if someone flags something for us that’s egregiously uncivil.

        • Corlyss

          ‘Twould be a lot easier if you had a “flag” or “report” button similar to other sites. I noticed, probably tardily, that you added a print button, for which I am very grateful. Saves me multiple steps trying to print. Thanks.

          • Andrew Allison

            Corlyss, there is a flag button. It appears if one hovers over or replys to a message (not clear why one would want to reply to a flagged message, but there it is). Cheers.

          • Corlyss

            Thanks Andrew. I missed that.

        • Andrew Allison

          Damir, it does seem that the moderation is more inclined toward widely used slang than flagged posts. Look only at flagged posts maybe? There’s a difference between something to which a reader objects and psuedo-PC ;<)}

  • charlesrwilliams

    Suicide, drug overdose and obesity are behavioral problems rooted in the breakdown of the culture. It will get worse before it gets better (if it gets better). Nothing we can do to the health care system will change these trends.

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