Lifespan drops in some groups: points to need for better prevention, new therapies

Geoff Lomax is CIRM’s Senior Officer to the Standards Working Group

Lifespan from 1990 to 2008 for groups of women, from The New York Times

The New York Times recently reported new evidence that life expectancy among some groups has fallen by and average of four years since 1990.

There is perhaps no more poignant measure of health improvement. Life expectancy has increased dramatically over the past century in the United States — from 49.2 years at the start of the 20th century to 77.5 years in 2003 (from the Congressional Research Service).

Although that overall trend has continued through 2008, white men and women without degrees for the first time saw a decline in life expectancy.

The improvements in life expectancy over the past century came about in two waves. In the early twentieth century public health investments – ranging from sanitation systems to vaccination programs – resulted in a dramatic increase in life expectancy.

Later in the century, innovations in science and medicine enabled treatments for a host of other life-threatening diseases, and the results have been impressive. For example, bone marrow transplantation, first attempted in 1957, has prevented deaths from childhood leukemia. Today, the national Marrow Donor Program includes over 9 million donors and nearly 145,000 umbilical cord blood units, the largest and most racially and ethnically diverse registry of its kind in the world.

In other conditions such as heart disease, cancer and HIV/AIDS, medical advances over the past 20 years have allowed people to live significantly longer after diagnosis.

Given this progress, the new results are a disappointment. The New York Times quotes John G. Haaga, head of the Population and Social Processes Branch of the National Institute on Aging, who was not involved in the new study.

“We’re used to looking at groups and complaining that their mortality rates haven’t improved fast enough, but to actually go backward is deeply troubling.”

What is also troubling is the lack of a clear explanation for the apparent trend. The New York Times wrote:

The reasons for the decline remain unclear, but researchers offered possible explanations, including a spike in prescription drug overdoses among young whites, higher rates of smoking among less educated white women, rising obesity, and a steady increase in the number of the least educated Americans who lack health insurance.

Improvements in health and longevity are among our greatest achievements as a society. There, improvements have come about largely because of public investment in efforts to simultaneously prevent and treat disease.

Clearly, this recent study points to the fact that sustaining improvements in longevity and quality of life is a challenge. Addressing this challenge will require continued investment into both disease prevention and also new therapies. At CIRM, we are committed to the new therapies part of the longevity equation. We’ve partnered with international collaborators, federal agencies, and industry to be part of a worldwide effort to deliver new therapies to those who need them.

G.L.

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