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The Detrimental Impact of Decreasing Life Expectancy

American life expectancy began to decline even prior to the pandemic, signaling underlying issues within the U.S.

A significant portion of the rise in preventable premature mortality can be attributed to drug overdose, which surged five-fold over the past years. However, this decline in health is not limited to this factor alone; it is a much broader concern, primarily fueled by increasing rates of depression and obesity.

The prevalence of depression among adults has escalated from 30% to 42% since the early 2000s, accompanied by a nearly doubled rate of severe obesity. These health challenges not only elevate the risk of serious conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes but also pose a considerable threat to public health.

Moreover, the surge in sexually transmitted infections over the last decade and the emergence of COVID-19 as a significant infectious disease for the first time since 1937 have added to the array of health issues faced by the country.

These health crises not only impact individuals but also have profound economic implications. A mere one-year rise in life expectancy could boost economic output by 4%. Conversely, as the nation’s health deteriorates, healthcare expenditures continue to skyrocket, constituting a substantial portion of the GDP.

The escalating out-of-pocket healthcare costs are straining individuals’ financial stability, leading many towards bankruptcy and perpetuating a cycle of a less healthy workforce and a weakened economy.

While policymakers recognized the interconnectedness of the economy and public health during the peak of the pandemic, recent neglect of these efforts post-COVID control could pave the way for future crises. Revitalizing the historical notion that a healthy workforce is beneficial for the economy is imperative.

Public health investments have been historically emphasized not just for moral reasons but also for enhancing economic productivity. Creating a robust public health infrastructure facilitates healthier lives for the workforce, contributing significantly to global advancements in health over the past century.

Public health initiatives extend beyond disease tracking to disease prevention. Access to fundamental resources like clean air and water, affordable healthcare, stable housing, and safe workplaces are pivotal for ensuring good health and longevity.

During the pandemic, initiatives addressing basic needs such as eviction moratoriums, expanded food assistance, and mandated paid sick leave played a crucial role in promoting stability and safeguarding public health. However, the discontinuation of these measures has led to challenges like housing affordability issues and increased homelessness.

Shifting the focus from treating illnesses to preventing them is essential. Redirecting resources towards proactive health programs could help in reducing healthcare costs and improving overall well-being, steering away from the current costly approach that focuses predominantly on treating illnesses after they occur.

Reinstating public health as an economic priority could garner broader support for interventions that have proven effective in enhancing public health and productivity, despite being divisive during the pandemic.

_Céline Gounder (@CelineGounder), an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist, serves as the senior fellow and editor-at-large for public health at KFF Health News. Craig Spencer (@Craig_ASpencer) is an emergency medicine physician and public health professor at Brown University. They co-authored this piece for the Los Angeles Times.