Falling life expectancy

Thursday 23 June 2011 View all posts

Chemistry often gets a bad press. Some obvious examples are environmental pollution such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the use of toxic defoliants such as Agent Orange or the siting of nuclear power plants in Earthquake zones such as in Fukushima, Japan. Those of you who have read the first chapter of my Chemistry Course Companion will know that I counter this by looking at the very large increase in life expectancy during the past century. This is very much down to chemists who have provided the means for providing safe drinking water and synthesised antibiotics and other drugs to treat major illnesses and diseases etc. In fact the general public now seem to take it for granted that life expectancy will continue to rise. In the West in particular this is causing problems with ageing populations.

The governments of many countries are increasing the retirement age and also increasing the contributions that workers have to make in order to try to fund the projected pensions of future retirees. This is seen as a big problem because ‘people are living longer and will spend many years in retirement’. Many workers are unhappy with their governments’ actions and are taking strike action. What no-one seems to question is the underlying assumption that life expectancy will continue to rise. For some time I have felt that this may not actually be the case. Whilst some individuals may well have a long and healthy life for many others the story may be very different. Obesity in many countries is now a major issue and coupled with a sedentary lifestyle, increasing exposure to pollutants (particularly secondary pollutants from photochemical smog) and alcohol and substance abuse it may well be that the next generation will not actually live as long as the current generation unless there is a huge change in lifestyle. This is now borne out in fact. A recent study by a team from the University of Washington has shown that there are now large variations in life expectancy within the different counties in the United States. For men it varies from 65.9 to 81.1 years and for women from 73.5 to 86.0 years. More significantly between 2000 and 2007 80% (men) and 91% (women) of American counties fell in standing against the international life expectancy standard. Put another way American citizens who have among the highest standard of living in the world are losing out on life expectancy compared to other countries. As chemistry teachers we need to educate our students to use the benefits that chemistry can bring wisely and not abuse all the undoubted advantages that a high standard of living can bring.

Added later: 11 July 2011. I've just read an interesting article by Eric Reiter, S, Jay Olshanskey and Yang Yang published in Health Affairs published after I wrote the blog above which confirms this. They have used a new way of predicting mortality rates by using current statistics on cadiovascular death rates caused by obesity in the 25-29 age range and extrapolating it to older people and have reached exactly the same conclusion that life expectancy in the US is set to fall.

Added even later: 8 May 2012. Today I received a nice e-mail from June Owensboro who works as a Staff Researcher/Part-time Writer for TremLifeInsurance in the USA. She came across this blog whilst she was researching for information to write an article on life expectancy and found it helpful for her research. Her article on Popular Ways of Increasing Life Expectancy looks at what you as an individual can do to boost your chances of living longer - so if you want to buck the trend and live a long life it is well worth spending some time looking at it!

Next post: 3 Jul 2011
'Chemistry man'
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IB May Chemistry exams


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