A new study published Tuesday takes aim at a part of the American Dream researchers thought would never change -- after 60 years of growth, the average American life expectancy has dropped for the last three years.
What’s causing the dip is even more disturbing -- the study published in an American medical journal cites “...drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and a diverse list of organ system diseases.”
Deaths among those aged 25 to 64 from self-destructive behaviors and related-diseases are driving the decrease in life expectancy, according to the study by Dr. Steven H. Woolf and Heidi Schoomaker. The study, published in the peer-reviewed JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, was entitled “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017.”
The dip is small -- in the last three years life expectancy fell from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But the fact it dipped at all after 60 years of growth is surprising. And considering it took a decade for life expectancy to rise one year from 2000 to 2010, a recovery of life expectancy could take time.
Also concerning is the fact the U.S. lags behind other nations in life-expectancy gains, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s The World Factbook. America ranks 43rd, behind the United Kingdom (35th), France (17th) and South Korea (11th). Monaco came in first with a life expectancy of 89.4 years -- a full decade more of life than the average American can expect.
In an editorial accompanying the study, JAMA’s editors pointed out another disturbing fact: despite spending more on healthcare than any other country, Americans are living shorter lives than people in other countries.
Cortland County conditions
But what about Cortland County? Are we losing years of life to suicides, drugs, and alcohol?
Cortland ranks in the bottom third of counties for life expectancy when statistics are adjusted for age and population to compare New York counties to each other, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a health research foundation. Cortland ranked 49th out of 62 counties for premature deaths-- in other words, 48 other counties had fewer deaths before the age of 75 than Cortland County.
Our average age of death is younger than the national average as well: Cortland County citizens die at 77.9 years, according to the research foundation.
Cortland County was also in the bottom half in the research foundation’s ranking for quality of life, 39th, and healthy behaviors, 38th.
The Cortland County Health Department cited suicides, drug overdoses and smoking-related deaths as areas of concern in its annual reports since at least 2016.
The numbers of suicides in the County between 2016 to 2018 are too small to reveal any particular trend: there were 7 in 2016, 11 in 2017, and 5 in 2018. There was also one child suicide in 2018.
While completed suicides have held relatively steady in the County, police are responding to an increasing number of people contemplating suicide, said Capt. Rob Derksen of the Cortland County Sheriff’s Office.
“That’s become more and more commonplace,” Derksen said, referring to suicidal individuals. “But as far as successful suicides, I’d say it’s been pretty consistent.”
An outlier in the suicide statistics was an armed standoff in May at the Hampton Inn in Cortland that included a hostage, according to the 2018 annual city police report. Sgt. Dan Johnson led the 27-hour negotiations and the hostage was released before the gunman committed suicide, according to the report.
City police responded to 344 mental health calls in 2018, according to the report, which is the most recent available data. That’s up 55 calls from 289 calls in 2017.
One of the challenges the County is facing is a lack of mental health care providers; there is one provider for every 310 people in the County, according to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Drug overdose deaths in Cortland County have also accounted for a small, but growing number of mortalities from 2016 to 2018, according to the health department. The department recorded four deaths in 2016, five deaths in 2017 and seven deaths in 2018, according to annual reports.
“As the opiate problem became larger there was an increase in overdoses,” explained city police Lt. Michael Strangeway. “Some of those resulted in deaths.”
Derksen agreed overdoses have risen in recent years, but noted with the use of naloxone treatments to revive overdose patients, many of those overdose patients live.
“We’re definitely seeing more overdoses,” Derksen said, “but the majority of overdoses don’t necessarily result in death.”
Derksen and Strangeway both reported alcohol related issues have remained fairly consistent through the years. Overall, intoxicated driving arrests were down slightly for the city police in 2018 compared to 2017, according to the 2018 city police annual report. But 21 percent of the County’s population reported excessive drinking, according to the foundation’s report.
Smoking is the most deadly health challenge the County is facing, according to the health department and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
A fifth of all deaths in Cortland County in 2018 were smoking-related, according to the health department. In 2017, smoking contributed to 14 percent of deaths and 19 percent of deaths were smoking-related in 2016.
The County Health Department found nearly half of all deaths in 2018 were due to cardiovascular disease and cancer --- one-third of all cancer deaths were from lung cancers.