Why is longevity decreasing?

Longevity - how long we are living - reflects societal, medical, and cultural shifts over many generations.

The fact that much of the world is living longer impacts how we think, how we act, and how we view the world. Let’s examine the phenomena of living longer in more depth.

Up until the last few years, the US population lived longer than any other country with an overall life expectancy of 78+. This means that many more of us are living well into our 80s and 90s with more and more making it into the 100s. In 2015, there were over 10,000 US citizens 100 years old or older. Big numbers.

Increased longevity impacts all of us. It means that what we call retirement may last 30 years or more. Although this observation is obvious, the majority of us contemplating retirement, or even well into it, do not put 2+2 together. We don’t connect the dots and understand what living for 30 years or more in retirement actually means. It has so many huge implications.

First, it cost more to live longer. While obvious, most of us don’t do the math.

Then there are the medical issues. A large percentage of Medicare and Medicaid dollars are spent on costs incurred during the last 6 months of life.

Another issue facing the senior market are the questions revolving around meaning and purpose. So many recent interactions with individuals well into their retirement respond to the questions about, “What’s next?” with a shrug. Then the litany of leisure activities begins with the net result being the insightful answer of, “nothing.” 

When a large percentage of the Christian population positions themselves to doing nothing for 30 years, think of the lost kingdom opportunities.

While there is much more to be said about this subject, a troubling change in the longevity statistics is upon us. For the last two years, where numbers are available, the longevity in America has reversed from the growing trend and we are entering into a time of decline. Although the decline is not significant, it does signal the end of our time of longevity increasing. Other countries 35 of them to be precise, now have a life expectancy longer than the US population. Those countries include Australia, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to name a few. Each one, according to World Bank numbers, has a life expectancy of at least 1.5 years more than we do.

It is both interesting and very scary to dig inside our numbers to answer the question of why? Why are our average life expectancy numbers going down when more of our citizens are living longer? Good question. The answer is frightening. During the decades when our life expectancy was rising, it was due primarily to lowering the rate of infant and mother mortality. In addition, medical science was delivering cures and ways to prolong life. So, there were advancements happening at both ends of life’s spectrum. The rest of us were just healthier than most of the generations since Methuselah. Remember, he is the Biblical character that lived 969 years.

What is happening to top out the longevity increase and start the decline?

The stark reality is that Americans are dying as a result of drug and alcohol-related causes as well as the sobering reality of suicide. So, drugs, alcohol, and depression resulting in suicide are rising at a fast enough rate to offset the increases.

Astounding and sad.

Each of these causes is the result of decisions made by individuals. Very few were coerced or forced to take opioids and other drugs and then to die of an overdose. Very few were enticed into over the top alcohol consumption leading to death from accident or liver disease. Or, the devastation of taking your own life, so often couched in terms that defy understanding such as, “Everyone will be better off if I’m not here.” This twisted thought pattern is becoming the reality for far too many.

The consequences of these new realities are grim. From a societal standpoint, it negatively impacts our workforce and our level of productivity. From a family standpoint, it is devastating. Our future generations will pay the price of decline. Our increasing national debt will only get worse as our productivity suffers.

It is likely that the human tragedies associated with the decline will touch all of our families. When it does, there is personal pain for those of us left behind. We are not better off. The extension of most of our lives is significant. The shortening of so many lives is significant. We need to understand both and take steps to reduce the former and understand the later.

We know that a life well lived is one that reflects meaning and purpose.

For those of us who follow Jesus, we know that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruits of following him and putting his teachings into daily practice. Then, we can understand the mystery of a relationship with Jesus and the life guidance that come from his Spirit. When a full relationship with Jesus is in place, it is less likely that drugs, alcohol, and depression will guide our thoughts and actions and more likely that love and wisdom will.

So why is longevity decreasing in America? It reflects both societal ills and bad personal choices. A very powerful combination. When both the surrounding circumstances and interrupted growth of spiritual and emotional maturity hook up, there is nothing but disaster ahead. We can see it, feel it, and experience it all too often in our families or those close to us.

These dire realities do not change the challenge for so many of us to explore and engage with our Kingdom calling. The opportunity available to each is to find deeper meaning and purpose in all we do. Following God’s destiny for our lives will provide the bumper guards of life. They will gently protect us from the wages of death all around.

Now might be a good time to open the Bible. A great time to engage with the wisdom of Solomon or the songs and prayers of The Psalms. Re-reading the book of Mark and the wisdom of James will help too. Both protecting ourselves and our families while building relationships with those who need our help is a powerful formula for leading your life to the point where at the end of it, we will hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Bruce Bruinsma