In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that overall life expectancy in the United States had dropped for the first time in decades. The result was so rare and unexpected that many statisticians saw it as a momentary blip – a statistical anomaly. But then, in 2018, the same thing happened.
The decrease in overall life expectancy appears to be a uniquely American problem. It is one that we do not see in the rest of the developed world, but one that is pervasive throughout this country. Rural and urban, East and West, North and South: nowhere in the United States has been left untouched. But, herein lies the rub: no one really knows why this is happening.
The “mortality turnaround” is even more surprising because it happened despite great strides in combating infant mortality and deaths due to heart disease and cancer (traditionally the two most common forms of adult mortality in the United States). Researchers found that the drop in overall life expectancy was due to a huge rise in “deaths of despair” among a very specific cohort: white, middle-aged Americans with no more than a high school degree. Deaths due to suicide, drug overdoses (intentional or not), and alcoholism are included among the deaths of despair. (However, the news is not all bad. The CDC just reported that drug overdoses fell in 2018 for the first time in decades.)
Again, no one knows the primary cause(s) behind these deaths of despair. Long-term wage stagnation, globalization, and labor force participation have all been rejected as primary causes since other demographic groups in the United States and other industrialized nations faced similar conditions during and after the Great Recession without corresponding drops in life expectancy. The opioid epidemic is an obvious choice. However, the current research suggests that opioid overprescribing was not a root cause but rather made the underlying conditions worse and “fanned the flames.”
What is clear is that some cluster of social, spiritual, and economic conditions unique to America is behind this disturbing trend. The following have all been floated as possible answers: technology that replaces face-to-face interactions with electronic ones, declining marriage rates and high divorce rates, the declining prestige and faltering membership of traditional religious institutions, the lack of sustainable middle-income jobs for low-skilled workers, and rural isolation coupled with the availability of firearms. Social isolation may indeed play a role, since contemporaneous research has shown that social isolation, loneliness, and living alone increase the risk of mortality by 29%, 26%, and 32%, respectively.
A perspicacious reader might ask: what does all this have to do with L’Arche? In his book “The Heart of L’Arche,” Jean Vanier wrote:
L’Arche is not a solution to a social problem. L’Arche is a sign that love is possible… Just as a lamp must not be hidden under a bushel, but must shine for everyone in a house (Matthew 5), so our communities must enable others to find hope and live lives of love, sharing and rejoicing…
In a society riven by isolation and large political divides, L’Arche can shine as a small ray of hope. We know how to build and sustain communities where people from different walks of life can find fellowship, joy, and meaning. We’re not (and maybe should not be) in a position to solve this immense issue, but perhaps we can be a small lamp that helps light someone’s path out of despair into hope and belonging.
L’Arche USA Director of External Affairs