Life Expectancy and Risk

Life is unpredictable at best, periodically shocking. I received an email Friday advising of a death in the periphery of my circle. It was perceived as notable enough that the first email was followed by texts and other emails. The immediate reaction, as in similar circumstances, is always to question age. As I chronologically progress, I have been persistent in my perception that only old people die. Thus, when I learn of a death, I turn rapidly and instinctively to the "how old was s/he." As I age, the definition of "old" has also evolved and I find myself losing contemporaries at a far more rapid pace than I recall. 
In this instance, I was surprised with the answer - 74. By any stretch of the imagination, that is simply not old (O.K. unless you are under 10, perspective matters). Life expectancy is not what it always was. It seems like my lifetime has been a constant, or at least persistent, parade of announcements regarding the improving life expectancy of Americans. That ended in 2016, see Life Expectancy Changes (November 2016). We were shocked then. That trend, it seems, continues in 2020 and 2021. Our life expectancy declined in each, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That may be pandemic influenced, drug use is playing some role, perhaps other causes. 
Life expectancy in 2021 declined to "76.1 years," which "took U.S. life expectancy at birth to its lowest level since 1996." But, that is not 74. The way that statistics are kept, with these persistent references to race, origin, and gender, is somewhat questionable in a world in which such characterizations are decried and perhaps even fluid. But, the CDC keeps track of these trends based on race and gender. The biggest decrease in life expectancy was "on-Hispanic American Indian-Alaskan Native people (AIAN)." That phrase requires some unpacking.
The "second biggest decline" in 2021 was "one full year from 77.4 in 2020 to 76.4 in 2021." This was for the "Non-Hispanic white people in the United States." It was about one such person that I received that email Friday. The expectancy, or average, is 76.4 years. In that context, the answer of 74 is not perhaps so very shocking. Troubling. I will grant you troubling, but not shocking. Would it be shocking to learn that those expectancies are "from birth," and that instead, the expectancy for a male that reaches 74 would be another 12 years? You see, expectancy is about surviving, and the longer you do so, the more chance you will continue to do so. 
In the age of SARS-CoV-2, there would have likely been conjecture and questions perhaps about the role that malady played. I tired quickly of the debates regarding what role COVID did or did not play in various passings since 2020. Its role was difficult to define, complex to analyze, and frankly beyond most of us to comprehend or categoririze. I will not miss the pandemic, "you can't make me, you can't make me."
The declining life expectancy generally was juxtaposed this last week by surprising news of cancer survivability in the U.S. CNN reported that "more people are surviving cancer than ever before." The conclusion is founded on recent reporting by "the American Association for Cancer Research." The population of cancer survivors is dramatically increased over the last 50 years. And, the
"overall survival rate has increased from 49% in the mid-1970s to nearly 70% from 2011 to 2017, the most recent years for which data is available."
There is great hope and promise in those numbers. Of course, these may similarly be more about survivability, survival, and the higher life expectancy for those who reach various levels of maturity. But survivable is nonetheless worthy of celebration. 
I would have thought that cancer was the big threat to us all. But, the CDC notes that "heart disease is the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the United States." That is apparently what struck the 74-year-old Friday. A reportedly "massive heart attack" that was perhaps a known threat or a complete surprise. Heart disease is bigger than cancer, Covid, and the accidents with which workers' compensation is so often associated.
Mayo Clinic notes that "sudden cardiac arrest can happen in people who have no known heart disease." The fact seems to be that one may learn of risks, suffer symptoms, and be challenged to manage. Others may have little or no warning that such risks threaten. A heart attack may follow a prediction or premonition or could be a sudden and unequivocal surprise. For that matter, stroke is worthy of your attention for the same reason(s). And, one never knows for sure if those premonitions have occurred. People are generally rather close with their medical details. Thus, when an associate died suddenly and unexpectedly last spring, the questions of "why" and "how" cascaded. 
So, we have met the enemy. Heart disease. It turns out that medicine is going to make great strides, see the cancer discussion above. There will undoubtedly be improvements in heart disease as well. The Mayo Clinic suggests some actions through which you might help the medical profession to help you with heart disease (bullet points are direct quotes):
  • Don't smoke or use tobacco. One of the best things you can do for your heart is to stop smoking or using smokeless tobacco. 
  • Get moving: Aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of activity daily. 
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Get good quality sleep.
  • Manage stress.
  • Get regular health screenings.
Some of those are seemingly easier than others. I started an odyssey in January 2020 to lose a few pounds. The isolation and serenity of the pandemic soon thereafter, and its impacts, only made that easier for me. However, I know a fair few who gained weight during that period. Know that with a diet high in fiber and protein, low in processed foods, fats, and sugars, weight loss is not really a mystery. Add in a good 10,000 daily steps and you are on your way. Those steps will also likely help you with the stress and the sleep. In fact, diet and exercise might just solve all the world's problems (we would all be too tired to fight about anything).
In the end, I am tired of hearing of deaths. For you younger readers, know that I recognize death invades your world periodically. Know also that as you age, it becomes increasingly pervasive and recurrent. Too many die, and we are powerless to prevent it. There will be strides. You can make a difference. But, in the end, the end will come nonetheless. Friday brought yet another entry in the parade that has been my recent existence. Another chance to contemplate that somewhere in this parade there is a float with my name on it. 
Have a good morning, I'm going to go walk three miles and grab some carrots for breakfast; then maybe a nap?
By Judge David Langham
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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