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U.S. life expectancy falls below China (so we should probably fix health care)

The average life expectancy is at a new low

With the help of popular author John Green, Columbia School of International and Public Affairs professor, and political scientist Ian Bremmer, dire news about United States life expectancy went viral on Twitter:

The United States will soon drop out of the Top 50 nations in terms of life expectancy.

Every country above us has a public option for health insurance of a publicly funded healthcare system. Not some. Not most. Every single one. https://t.co/DpR5L7zhki

— John Green (@johngreen) September 7, 2022

For the first time since the National Health Center for Statistics began collecting vital health statistics in 1960, China has surpassed the U.S. in average life expectancy. The average age of death continued its rapid decline from an 80-year-old high in 2019 to 76.1 years just two years later.

Bremmer argues that this “should be a headline in every (U.S.) newspaper.” (Through social media, this news has already reached at least 0.04% of the population.) Green adds that the nation may soon fall out of the top 50 ranked world nations. While this is an incredible statistic for what is supposed to be the planet’s most wealthy state by GDP, Green highlights that every country above the U.S. ensures individual health care coverage through a publicly funded option.

Sharp-eyed skeptics may argue that this stat is misleading. According to the CDC analysis, for example, the COVID-19 outbreak accounts for 50% of our declining life expectancy. This point, however, only illuminates how poorly this country responded to a global pandemic.

Other causes of death that the CDC indicated include unintentional injuries (such as opioid overdoses and car crashes), heart disease, chronic liver disease, and cirrhosis. It’s true that Americans don’t always have the healthiest lifestyle, eschewing the Mediterranean diet in favor of easy, convenient, bad-for-you foods. And, even when we try to eat healthy, we sometimes get duped. And, of course, a sedentary lifestyle is a big contributor to poor health, which is why it’s so important to get a good workout in and make sure we don’t spend all day at our desks. But another big issue? Health care coverage. The American Health Association found that health insurance “facilitates access to care and is associated with lower death rates, better health outcomes, and improved productivity.”

Despite recent gains (20 million newly insured individuals in the last few years) and 90% of the U.S. population retaining health plans, more than 28 million people still lack critical basic coverage. According to the AHA, “meaningful health care coverage is critical to living a productive, secure and healthy life.” Let’s see how.

Coverage improves access to care

Coverage reduces barriers to accessing health care. AHA research found that adult and children Medicaid enrollees are over four times more likely to retain consistent care sources and more than twice as likely to receive preventative care services than people lacking coverage.

Individuals with coverage are more likely to obtain access to prescription drug therapies including access to diabetes and asthma medications, contraceptives, and cardiovascular drugs. Per the AHA, insured people are also more likely to obtain an early diagnosis and treatment, which contribute to better health outcomes.

AHA data analysis revealed that in states that have increased Medicaid coverage, fewer people report cost as an impediment to medical access than in states that did not expand Medicaid. This makes sense given fewer individuals in these expansion states report abstaining from prescription meds because of high prices. State Medicaid expansion also correlates to timelier cancer and diabetes diagnoses and treatment and surgical conditions. Additionally, numbers indicated that a higher proportion of persons have a personal doctor in Medicaid expansion states than in non expansion states.

Coverage is associated with improved health outcomes

As we can see from CDC research, broadening coverage also decreases mortality rates. The AHA reports that after Massachusetts augmented Medicaid and private insurance access, the state’s “all-cause mortality” dropped significantly.

The AHA determined that Medicaid expansion is more specifically associated with lower cardiovascular deaths. Individuals in increased Medicaid states were more likely to quit smoking due to preventive care and evidence-based smoking cessation services. The analysis also found that individuals with coverage report a greater sense of well-being and more mental health visits for insurance-covered young adults with mental illness. A study of Oregon’s earlier expansion, for example, found lower rates of depression among covered people.

Coverage improves individual and systemic well-being

Individual health, the AHA stated, leads to improved familial and community well-being. There are several reasons for this.

Coverage reduces individual and family financial burden and risk by reducing out-of-pocket spending on care, and essentially eliminates catastrophic bills for catastrophic accidents. Having more money makes it easier for people to meet not only medical, but financial needs.

More people with more money not only allow that investment to flow into communities, but decreases violence and property crimes. Research also revealed that Medicaid expansion created thousands of jobs. When individuals are able to better care for themselves, there’s less need for desperate acts. In concert, this reduces government spending to reduce crime and to cover unpaid medical bills.

With the latest reported decline, U.S. life expectancy is now at its lowest number since 1996. If the U.S. desires to reestablish its age expectancy and standing amidst industrialized nations, the country is going to have to improve its health care coverage.

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Matthew Denis
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Matt Denis is an on-the-go remote multimedia reporter, exploring arts, culture, and the existential in the Pacific Northwest…
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