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Jul 24th 2008

Boo Freaking Hoo: America’s Life Expectancy Disparity

The other day, I expressed some frustration with people who blame poverty on our system of government. Someone commented that he had some of the same concerns about the blame game over health care, at least for children. This reminded me of a New York Times story I read a while back, digesting a report that life expectancy has increased steadily in some groups over the last several years, while other groups have been stagnant or fallen backwards in their life expectancies:

THROUGHOUT the 20th century, it was an American birthright that each generation would live longer than the last. Year after year, almost without exception, the anticipated life span of the average American rose inexorably, to 78 years in 2005 from 61 years in 1933, when comprehensive data first became available.

But new research shows….there are widening gaps in life expectancy based on the interwoven variables of income, race, sex, education and geography.
The most startling evidence came last week in a government-sponsored study by Harvard researchers who found that life expectancy actually declined in a substantial number of counties from 1983 to 1999, particularly for women. Most of the counties with declines are in the Deep South, along the Mississippi River, and in Appalachia, as well as in the southern Plains and Texas.
Taken to their extreme, the numbers can be striking: a 2006 study found that Native American men in southwestern South Dakota could expect to live to 58, while Asian women in Bergen County in New Jersey had a life expectancy of 91. [Source: NYTimes]

I am unsure why the government, the health care system, or I need to feel guilty for this. Certainly, we should do all we can to help people live longer. Some people, however, do not live for longevity.

When I read news reports that blame government for problems most individuals are able to solve on their own every day, I get frustrated. There are people out there — and I know some of them personally — who have been warned by their doctors to stop drinking, stop smoking, what have you, and yet they persist. They might find it laughable to know that, after they died, (a) it would take some of the brightest minds at Harvard University hundreds of hours to determine that, wow, people like them die sooner and (b) the New York Times would find such results “startling.”

I am not startled because I don’t think these complaints are about inequality of opportunities. I think they are just another way of demanding an equal result regardless of people’s poor choices or bad luck. Perhaps in some cases, we can attribute a person’s early demise to lack of available health care. Often, however, people fail to take responsibility for their own care, fall victim to bad genes and inherited maladies, or put themselves in dangerous situations (whether in their careers or elsewhere) that negatively impact life expectancy for their group. I count myself among these people in some respects. I will die sooner than Asian women in New Jersey, and I’m fine with that.

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