November 29, 2018 - Thursday
Mortality and Morality in America
Life goes by fast -- and in Americans' case, too fast. According to the CDC, people in the U.S. are dying sooner than they used to, and experts are scrambling to explain why.
For the third year in a row, life expectancy is on the decline -- a pattern this country hasn't seen since World War I. On average, Americans can expect to live 78.6 years, down a tenth of a year from 2016. Bob Anderson, chief of the CDC's morality statistics branch, said, "It doesn't seem like a lot, but in terms of human cost you've got a lot of life that's not being lived. It's significant."
Most researchers look at longevity as a snapshot of America's overall health. And Johns Hopkins's Joshua Sharfstein thinks this is a pretty "dismal picture" of where the nation is at. In developing countries especially, "Life expectancy is improving in many places in the world. It shouldn't be declining in the United States." So what, most people want to know, has changed?
For now, experts are blaming two crises: the explosion of opioid abuse and a spike in suicides. Drug overdoses set a record in 2017, up almost 7,000 cases from the year before. Then, just as concerning, is the incredible surge of people taking their own lives. An astounding 47,000 Americans -- more than enough to fill every seat in St. Louis's Busch Stadium -- killed themselves last year, up 33 percent from 1999. Another one in 33 people thought seriously about taking their lives, but didn't. In the world of suicide prevention, experts have their hands full explaining the crisis -- and trying stop it.
To some, the rise of this kind of helplessness is baffling. America is more prosperous and stable than any nation in the world. We live in an era of unprecedented technology and medicine. The quality of our lives is supposedly so much better than our parents' and grandparents' generations. Why are people so miserable?
Maybe, for all of our "progress," we've lost sight of what really matters. We may have more homes, but they're broken. We may have more money, but it isn't buying us happiness. And we may have more opportunities, but we aren't always seizing them to do what's right. We're a culture that marries less, worships less, and respects people less. And when you understand how profoundly that matters, the sense of despair starts to make sense.
Experts are so busy looking at what caused these tragedies that they've stopped considering what could help prevent them. At one time, Americans used to know the answer instinctively: faith and family. Elitists will tell you we don't need those antiquities now. What we need, according to them, is to continue pursuing the utopian environment where if people are provided jobs, education, healthcare, internet access, and a safety net, all anti-social behaviors will be eliminated and personal happiness will be assured. The reality is we've seen what their utopia leads to in programs like the Great Society, which have proven time and again to be an expensive and evasive pipe dream. If they could put their liberal bias aside for just a moment, they could see the actual statistics make the solutions evident.
Back when Bob Morrison, a former FRC fellow, worked in the Reagan administration, he was researching a project on teen suicide. He poured over the manual from the CDC on the suicide rates for virtually every U.S. demographic. "I became familiar with the suicide rates for almost every group, from Ashkenazi Jews to Zuni Indians," Bob explains. "I noticed that black females had an almost nonexistent suicide rate. Could that be accurate? I quickly called the CDC and the desk officer there assured me it was correct: 'We call it the BFPF.' What's that, I pressed? 'The Black Female Protective Factor -- black women are very religious.'"
Turns out, faith just doesn't help black women. It helps all women. In 2016, experts were blown away to find that the women who went to church more than once a week had a 33 percent lower risk of dying compared to those who never went. Maybe, the researchers said, religion gives people more meaning to their lives. Or maybe, other experts pointed out, it promotes the kind of discipline that leads to healthy living. Either way, it was obvious to everyone on the project that going to church didn't just lead to eternal life -- it led to longer life.
Religion also happens to be the best anti-depressant. A 2013 study found that people who believe in a higher power actually respond better to psychiatric care. Dr. David Rosmarin of Harvard Medical said, "Our work suggests that people with a moderate to high level of belief... do significantly better in short-term [mental] treatment than those without, regardless of their [religion]."
And belief isn't the only thing that helps. So does marriage. After 80 years of studying the connection, the Longevity Project released an entire book about life span and divorce. Starting in the 1920s, children who grew up in broken homes died an average of five years earlier than kids from intact families, they discovered. That's a sobering statistic when you consider that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. And unfortunately, the unhappiness of splitting up is harder on your health than the frustration of sticking together. In studies like Dr. Kate Scott's, marriage reduced the symptoms of depression in 34,000 people -- dramatically more than people who are divorced, separated, or widowed. Even unhappily married partners fare better psychologically than people who never tie the knot.
Take faith away, take family away -- and in some cases -- take reality away, and people suffer. If we're looking for solutions, they're right in front of us. Stopping this cycle is as easy as taking a long hard look at the culture. Liberals may be reluctant, but if we care about pulling Americans back from the brink, we can't afford not to.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC Action senior writers.