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Dying too young

from David Ruccio

If there ever was an argument in support of Medicare for All it’s this: despite spending more on health care than any other country, the United States has seen increasing mortality and falling life expectancy for people ages 25 to 64, who should be in the prime of their lives.

A new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association paints a bleak picture: overall life expectancy in the United States, which had increased for most of the past 60 years, has actually fallen for three consecutive years. But this is not just a recent trend. U.S. life expectancy began to lose pace with other countries in the 1980s, and, by 1998, had declined to a level below the average life expectancy among Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. While life expectancy in these countries has continued to increase, American life expectancy stopped increasing in 2010 and has been actually decreasing since 2014.*

The recent decrease in U.S. life expectancy was largely related to increases in all-cause mortality among young and middle-aged adults, as against other groups (infants, children, and the elderly) for whom mortality rates have declined. For individuals aged 25 to 64 years all-cause mortality rates were in decline in 2000, reached a nadir in 2010, and increased thereafter.

But the roots of the crisis in U.S. life expectancy go back further in time. Midlife mortality rates for a variety of specific causes (e.g., drug overdoses and hypertensive diseases) began increasing earlier. But they weren’t reflected in all-cause mortality trends because they were offset by large, simultaneous reductions in mortality from ischemic heart disease, cancer, HIV infection, motor vehicle injuries, and other leading causes of death. However, increases in cause-specific mortality rates before 2010 slowed the rate at which all-cause mortality decreased (and life expectancy increased) and eventually culminated in a reversal. The end result was that all-cause mortality increased after 2010 (and life expectancy decreased after 2014).

The authors of the report make it clear that deficiencies in the healthcare system explain increased mortality from at least some conditions.

Although the US health care system excels on certain measures, countries with higher life expectancy outperform the United States in providing universal access to health care, removing costs as a barrier to care, care coordination, and amenable mortality.

Radically transforming the way healthcare is financed, such as is proposed in the U.S. Medicare for All Act of 2017 Health Insurance Program, would go a long way to reversing the decline in life expectancy in the United States. It would eliminate the financial barriers to decent healthcare, providing everyone with access to hospitalization, primary and preventative services, prescription drugs, and other services (such as oral health, audiology, and vision services), and so on.

But, we have to admit, universal health insurance is not by itself going to solve the problem in the United States. One reason, of course, is that one cause of the decrease in life expectancy is the surge in drug overdose deaths that began in the 1990s, which came out of the private, profit-seeking U.S. healthcare industry itself.**

The increasing mortality and falling life expectancy among young and middle-aged Americans were exacerbated by other dimensions of U.S. capitalism. We know, for example, that, since the late 1970s, income inequality widened, surpassing levels in other countries, concurrent with the deepening U.S. health crisis. Moreover, those most vulnerable to the new economy (e.g., adults with limited education and younger men) experienced the largest increases in death rates as did those who worked in areas suffering economic dislocation, such as rural U.S. areas and the industrial Midwest. While the authors admit that the causal links have not been firmly established, they do observe that “Socioeconomic pressures and unstable employment could explain some of the observed increases in mortality spanning multiple causes of death.”

It’s not just a matter of absolute income or net worth. According to the report, the causes of economic despair may be more “nuanced,” stemming from “perceptions and frustrated expectations” within the American working-class. Whatever hope was tied in with the American Dream has been undermined as economic inequality reached obscene levels and intergenerational mobility declined.

Moreover, these potential causes are probably not independent and may, together and in complex ways, shape mortality patterns.

major contributors like smoking, drug abuse, and obesogenic diets are shaped by environmental conditions, psychological distress, and socioeconomic status. The same economic pressures that force patients to forego medical care can also induce stress and unhealthy coping behaviors and can fracture communities.

Americans are faced, then, with an enormous problem: an economic system that, especially in recent decades, has caused mortality to rise and life expectancy to fall among young and middle-age workers; a private healthcare system that has both been inadequate to the task of caring for these people and in, the case of certain classes of pharmaceutical drugs, made the problem worse; and a system of health insurance that has left millions of people without access to healthcare.

Medicare for All represents a real solution to one dimension of the problem. But not to the other two. Unless and until the U.S. economic system (including the way healthcare is provided) is radically transformed, Americans will continue to die much too young.


*According to the report, Life expectancy began to advance more slowly in the 1980s and plateaued in 2011. U.S. life expectancy peaked in 2014 and subsequently decreased significantly for 3 consecutive years, reaching 78.6 years in 2017.

**It started with the introduction of OxyContin in 1996; was followed by increased heroin use, often by patients who had become addicted to prescription opioids; and then was subsequently aggravated by the emergence of potent synthetic opioids, which triggered a large post-2013 increase in overdose deaths.


  1. Patrick Newman
    December 2, 2019 at 5:34 pm

    Even in the UK, the trend of increased life expectancy has flatlined and in certain deprived parts of the country, it is actually falling. This is strongly correlated to the policy of austerity implemented since 2010 which has lead to increasing underfunding of both the NHS and social care.

  2. December 2, 2019 at 8:48 pm

    Yup: but in order to change the economic system based on ‘growth’ in order to provide ever more ‘wealth’ for the 1% to capture and sterilise so the oeconomy can’t use it to provide for everyone’s needs, you first have to kick the parties out of Congress and the Judiciary.

    George Washington accurately predicted what would happen if parties were allowed to capture the democratic system, yet still money talked and the people let their new republic be captured just like all others. The party stranglehold is now so complete that everyone assumes it is the only way to run a country, and there is almost nobody pointing out that the USA is currently committing suicide because the Founding Fathers did not think to specifically ban parties in the Constitution, and so their ‘failsafe’ idea of three equal branches of government has been easily circumvented by parties capturing all three, and so locking themselves into eternal virtual civil war for all time, unless the public comes to its senses and amends the Constitution to write the parties out and get a proper Congress of thinking men who are capable of making rational and unbiased decisions, and of ejecting criminals among their number when necessary, as was the original intent.


  3. John deChadenedes
    December 2, 2019 at 8:49 pm

    There are, of course, many strong arguments for Medicare-For-All, and no good arguments against such a plan. For economists, who tend not to be persuaded by arguments like, “It’s the right thing to do!” or “People have the right to good healthcare regardless of income”, even the purely economic arguments are all on the side of Medicare-For-All. Paying twice as much as people in other industrialized countries for worse outcomes violates free market principles. Incredibly high overhead costs violates principles of efficiency. Very high prescription costs and no real competition violates the principle that rich white people should not be prevented from becoming ever richer, no matter how they choose to do it. Millions of people dying younger and sicker than necessary violates some other principle the name of which escapes me at the moment. If any of the readers know of a good argument for keeping the awful system we currently have in the US, this would be the time to pipe up and share it.

  4. John Hermann
    December 2, 2019 at 10:33 pm

    The fact that this debate is taking place at all in the U.S. signifies that this major country has seriously fallen behind other advanced countries in both social and sustainable economic terms. And under the current administration the decline of social welfare within the U.S. continues unabated.

  5. Ken Zimmerman
    December 10, 2019 at 3:25 pm

    I guess it depends on the priorities chosen. Which reflect one’s assumptions about human nature, the universe, etc. Classical and neoclassical economists oppose solutions, particularly from the government that make everyone in a society better off. In these solutions they see great damage being done to the “natural” mechanisms of the economy which support people over the long term. Medicare-for-all would improve health care for everyone in the US quickly. Perhaps in as little as 2-3 years. According to these economists it would also destroy the mechanisms of competition and market pricing that are the heart of what assures services like health care are widely available at affordable prices (for some) over the long term. It’s just not a trade off that should be made. Immediate satisfaction in exchange for long term failure. This “lesson” has been passed on, effectively to many Americans. Particularly the part about government programs failing and hurting people. So, between the opposition of mainstream economists and the fear of many Americans of government programs like Medicare-for-all, such programs don’t have enough public support and particularly money to become the law of the land. Changing this requires we first change in a mass way basic American assumptions and secondly have the money to explain the program to all Americans in ways they can comprehend.

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