Dec 6, 2019
Between 1959 and 2016, life expectancy in the United States rose from 69.9 to 78.9 years. Most people know that. But did you know that since then, it’s reversed course?
A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association paints a portrait of a society in deep trouble. For the third year in a row, the average life expectancy in the United States has declined. The last time American life expectancy declined three years in a row, World War I and the “Spanish Flu” pandemic killed 675,000 Americans. Percentage-wise, that would be the same as losing 2.5 million Americans today.
Of course, in the early 1900s there were no antibiotics. Viruses were unknown--never mind antiviral drugs. The germ theory of disease had only recently been widely accepted in the U.S., and the kind of public health and sanitation measures we now take for granted were still in their infancy then.
Today, the U.S. spends a far larger share of its GDP on health care than any other nation. Yet, other wealthy nations are simply not experiencing this same reversal in life expectancy. In fact, some people in less-wealthy nations such as Costa Rica have significantly-longer life expectancies than Americans.
So, whatever is causing Americans to die younger and younger has nothing to do with medical science or technology.
As a recent Washington Post article describes, the causes behind this dramatic shift are things like “suicide, drug overdoses, liver disease and dozens of other causes.” These causes are summed up in the phrase “deaths from despair,” coined by researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton.
In other words, we are facing an epidemic of young people who are giving up on life, sometimes before it really even starts for them. As a public health expert told the Post, “People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.” As the study shows, they’re giving up at a younger and younger age.
The same hopelessness leading to the uptick in “deaths from despair” is also driving what I will call “acts of desperation,” that we also see in our culture. In this category, I’d put acts of mass violence, abuse, and the increasing numbers of young people willing to self-mutilate in a pursuit of their identities.
This sad story brings to mind Matthew 9: 36, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
The Greek word that is here translated “compassion” describes a visceral reaction, not a mere sentiment. In other words, Jesus felt this one in His gut. His response to their plight was to tell his disciples to “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” starting with themselves.
Our current epidemic of dying young should elicit a similar response from us.
As Chuck Colson liked to say, “it’s time for the Church to be the Church.” Like our Lord, we must see the harassed and helpless around us, and we must feel their suffering as if it were our own. We must pray that God would show us how He would have us respond.
If, as Paul told the Athenians, God has determined the time and place where we live, then we cannot be spectators to the unfolding tragedies of our cultural moment. God has placed us here to act.
This doesn’t mean we can “solve” this problem, any more than those who ran towards the plague in ancient Rome could stop it. The restoration of all things will only be complete when Christ returns in glory.
But we can offer a preview of that restoration here and now. This is what we, and only we, have to offer. If we can’t bring ourselves to do this, then something else is terribly wrong.
This time, with us.