American demographics take a turn for the worst, for the third year running

The American populace is now suffering from decreased lifespans, after a century of growth.

We are not only having fewer kids but we are dying a bit younger, unlike people in all other developed nations, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  That decrease in lifespan now appears in three years of data, 2014-2017. These are small numbers, between .1 and .2 years each year, but surprising, and now less likely to be a statistical fluke, with three annual findings in a row. We haven’t seen a downward movement like this in American since the double whammy of World War I and the Great Influenza.  Otherwise our lifespans have steadily increased, incrementally, both at home and in developed nations.

Readers know I track demographic data fairly obsessively.  That’s because it’s enormously important for shaping the environment that education inhabits.  Also, demographics are useful information for forecasting, since they give us fairly solid data about some aspects of the future, absent extraordinary developments… like what seems to be going on now.

Let me pull out some of the key CDC findings, then reflect on what they might mean.

To begin with, that slight change in life expectancy:

US life expect 2016-2017 CDC

It’s a small change, just one tenth of a percentage point, 78.7 to 78.6.

Notice some differences by race, with black males suffering the worst mortality followed by white males, as compared to the hispanic population enjoying the lowest mortality:

Note, too, the gender differences, with women continuing to outlive men by a half decade, overall.

Morality rates are also unevenly distributed by age group:

Death rates increased significantly between 2016 and 2017 for age groups 25–34 (2.9%), 35–44 (1.6%), and 85 and over (1.4%)… The death rate decreased significantly for age group 45–54 (1.0%).

The very old, the young – almost everyone except one middle aged population.

Summing up: “[f]rom 2016 to 2017, the age-adjusted death rate for the total population increased 0.4%, and life expectancy at birth decreased 0.1 year.”

What’s killing us?  The same things that have been killing us for years, mostly, with some interesting variations:

leading causes of death

(Note that these causes are almost exactly the opposite of what tv news covers)

If the rank order of death causes remains the same, what’s changed?

increases in mortality from unintentional injuries, suicide, diabetes, and influenza and pneumonia, with unintentional injuries making the largest contribution.

As the CDC director puts it, “U.S. life expectancy has declined over the past few years. Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide.”  The American Journal of Managed Care pins that first number down: “The age-adjusted rate of drug overdoses was 9.6% higher in 2017 compared with 2016.”  Vox offers this for the last number: “the suicide rate was 14 people in every 100,000 — up 33 percent from 10.5 people per 100,000 in 1999.”

Some thoughts and questions:

The suicide stats give me pause.  For example, “unintentional injuries”: how many of those are misclassified suicides?  I’m thinking of the horrendous death rates experienced in the former Soviet Union during the 1990s, some of which may have been suicides people didn’t want to classify as such.  For example, someone could crash their car, looking like an accident, but actually as a way of ending their life without insurance or reputational costs.  One can similarly set up a death by exposure or misadventure.

How many suicides are veterans?  Veterans historically have higher suicide rates than the rest of the population.  America rarely discusses this war, the longest-running war in our history; can we collectively agree to help veterans more than we currently do?


  • What’s driving the increase in flu and pneumonia deaths?  Is it people not getting shots for a range of reasons, or the appearance of especially virulent strains?
  • Respiratory, diabetes, stroke death rates all ticked up.  Is that significant?  Will the increase elicit new public health efforts?
  • Note the Alzheimer’s deaths.  That makes sense, given our increasing aging.
  • “Death rates increased significantly between 2016 and 2017 for age groups 25–34 (2.9%)” – I’ll just leave that there for the old folks who still love bashing Millennials.
  • We have been taking many collective steps to address the opioid crisis, from giving first responders greater access to naloxone (Narcan) to public health campaigns.  Will these figures prompt us to do more?
  • How will the nation respond to persistent “deaths of despair“?
  • Will the overall sense of this report drive more support for Medicare for All?
  • How much longer will this downturn continue?
  • What are the politics of this?  That is, will Trump supporters see the data as evidence of further American carnage and blame Obamacare?  Will Democrats continue to avoid the rural population as part of their general strategy, focused on cities and suburbs?  Will men’s rights activists seize on the data to buttress their victimhood claims?  Or is the data too minute to win much interest, too lacking a gory narrative for tv news to seize upon?

As a futurist I have to say that I wasn’t expecting this mortality swerve, apart from my most morbid and doom-laden imaginings.  I thought the US would adhere to the continued upward curves we previously exhibited, and still shown by the rest of the developed world.  Thinking about what this could imply for American society now and in years to come, especially during the darkest month of the Northern hemisphere’s year, may give me a bad case of abyss gaze.


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2 Responses to American demographics take a turn for the worst, for the third year running

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Some of these early 21st changes are reminiscent of changes in Europe and the US during the industrial revolution and rapid urbanization–a time when laissez-faire economics ruled.

    Marx wrote about alienation, Durkheim about anomie and suicide, and Tonnies about gemeinschaft and gesellschaft.

    Today, working families in particular have fewer real connections and their work lives are less stable. The Internet serves as an opiate and a poor substitute for face-to-face interaction. And the larger political economy faces challenges that are difficult to change when myth rather than intellect rules.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      That’s a rich link, Dahn.

      If we are increasingly suffering from the side effects of new laissez-faire – what I’d call neoliberalism here – then should we anticipate echoes of movements from the late 1800s? Radical labor and progressives?

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