Written by Myles Spar
Posted on: July 2, 2019
With the mind-boggling number of scientific and technological advancements this country has made in the last century, you’d think we’d be living longer than ever. Indeed, life expectancy is steadily increasing across the globe—but not in the United States.
Instead of going up, the number of years Americans are expected to live is actually decreasing. According to three reports published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in late 2018, U.S. life expectancy dropped for the third year in a row, continuing an extremely troubling trend. What are we doing wrong?
One of the more upsetting aspects of the CDC’s findings has to do with the ways in which people are dying. The nation’s drug epidemic as well as rising suicide rates were major contributing factors to the drop in life expectancy. Drug overdoses and suicides reportedly cost over 70,000 and 47,000 lives, respectively, in 2017. Both of these numbers were up from the previous year. As CDC director Robert R. Redfield, MD, said in a statement, “Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the Nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”
Considering that so many of these tragic deaths could have been prevented, perhaps we should stop asking what we’re doing wrong and start considering what we can do instead. Here are some ways you can be proactive about your health and potentially lengthen your life.
Lower Your Stress Levels
Too many of us are running ourselves ragged, and it’s taking a toll on our health. Between hustling to make ends meet and taking care of family, it can be pretty hard to avoid getting stressed out. But when stress becomes chronic, it becomes a problem. Chronic stress has been linked to conditions like heart disease, depression, high blood pressure, anxiety, insomnia, and more.
When it comes to reducing stress, it may take some trial and error to figure out what works for you. For me, exercise and meditation are my most powerful weapons against chronic stress. I share some of my thoughts about challenging myself to complete an Ironman triathlon here. As for meditation, learning how to practice this science-backed relaxation technique can be as easy as downloading a smartphone app. You can see a list of my favorites here.
Focus on Whole Foods
Adjusting your diet to increase longevity isn’t rocket science—it’s simply a matter of cutting down on the amount of processed food you eat and focusing on fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Making these changes can go a long way in reducing your risk of developing health problems like heart disease.
In fact, research in the field of epigenetics, which looks at how chemical and environmental factors impact our genetic health, has shown that dietary changes can lower your risk of heart disease even if it runs in your family. One study found people who ate more fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease even if they carried copies of the gene that increases the risk of heart problems, effectively “turning off” the gene.
Live with Intention
I strongly believe that setting goals and sticking to them can help you live a longer, healthier life. (I even gave a TED Talk about this, which you can watch here). One meta-analysis of ten studies following 136,000 people for around seven years found those who reported a feeling of higher purpose in life lowered their risk of death during the study period by approximately 20 percent, and they also had less chance of developing heart disease.
The study shows an association between purpose and increased lifespan rather than a cause and effect relationship, but its implication—that knowing what you want out of life and having a plan to get it can add years to your life—is significant.
Consider This Your Wake-up Call
The downward trend in U.S. life expectancy is troubling, but it’s also a wake-up call. To learn more about taking control of your health, sign up for Dr. Spar’s Performance Health Bulletin. You’ll get the best scientifically-validated health tips and articles sent straight to your inbox.
About Myles Spar, MD
Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board-certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.