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Ignore those life expectancy numbers

Life expectancy is a number that is useful to actuaries who deal with population statistics, to healthcare planners and to the journalists who write about it. It has nothing to do with how long you will live. Life expectancy in the United States is more than eighty for women and somewhat less (seventy-six) for men. The not-so-good news is that life expectancy has decreased for two years in a row, the fall attributed to the rampant abuse of opioids. If drug-related deaths do not decrease this year and the flu season is worse than most years we can expect another decline, shattering a record that will provide much hand-wringing at all levels of government, in the halls of academia and in the media. The steady increase in drug-related deaths does demand our attention because it mostly affects those in mid-life, destroying families and ending productive careers. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the opioid problem is that these deaths are entirely preventable. Influenza deaths are also largely preventable. Although the influenza vaccine is far from perfect it does reduce mortality at both extremes of life, the very young and the very old, whose deaths are almost always due to secondary bacterial infection, not to the virus itself.

Although heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the United States, improvements in diagnosis and treatment have slowed its climb. Diabetes reportedly accounted for fewer than 80,000 deaths in 2015 but that is a misleading statistic. Type 2 diabetes now affects nearly ten percent of the population and contributes to heart disease and stroke, a fact that is not usually reflected in death certificates. Obesity is not listed as a cause of death in official records but it is a very important contributor to coronary artery disease and it is linked to more than a dozen cancers. Chronic lower respiratory disease, third on the list, is almost entirely the result of smoking.

As individuals it is within our power to postpone if not to avoid six of the seven leading causes of death: heart disease, cancer, lower respiratory disease, accidents (nearly half of which include drug/opioid victims), stroke and type 2 diabetes. Persons who maintain normal weight and do not smoke or use drugs don’t have to pay attention to life expectancy figures. Good habits will help you to exceed those numbers by a couple of decades.


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