Life expectancy: Hope and despair
Recently the Wall Street Journal headlined a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that claimed a slight decline in life expectancy in the USA in 2017 from the previous year. On average someone like my first great-grandchild, who was born about two months ago, can expect to live for 78 years and six months, a loss of about a month from the previous year.
For most of my 79 years the average life expectancy has been gradually trending upwards, a result primarily of the tremendous developments in medicine that have taken place since the end of the World War II. Average Life Expectancy is just an average, and does not indicate how long any individual will live. In times and places where the average life expectancy was very low, it was usually because of high infant mortality rates. Historians guess that in the Middle Ages average life expectancy was only about 35 years. Many would live well beyond 35, but the average was kept down by the heavy death toll among new-borns and other infants.
The CDC did not attribute the slight drop in the trend of rising mortality rates to problems in the USA’s health care system. The report claimed that rising suicide rates, “the sharpest annual increase in suicides in nearly a decade,” and “a continued rise in deaths from powerful opioid drugs like fentanyl” were the main drivers of premature deaths especially among the young and middle-aged.
The Wall Street Journal also included a chart that showed that the death rate among black men was substantially higher than that for white men. Suicide and opioids might have been a factor but other studies have shown that the high murder rate of young black men involved in urban drug gangs is also a contributing factor. Chicago, for example, is notorious for an extremely high black-on-black murder rate.
Surprisingly, the death rate among Hispanic men was substantially lower than that for white men. Even more surprising was the fact that Hispanic women had an even lower death rate than white or black women. I say surprisingly because Hispanics obviously do not have greater access to health care than whites or blacks. Moreover, their economic status is certainly not better than whites or blacks.
Although it was not apparently mentioned in the CDC report, I suspect that the traditional family structure and religious background of the average American of Hispanic descent is a major factor in their life expectancy. These traditions will probably change as Hispanic children and grandchildren become assimilated into modern American society, but for the time being, they seem to be working to prevent the anxiety, worry, and loneliness that lead to suicide and drug use.
Last weekend my wife and I took the commuter train to New York city for the day. We had lunch at a nice restaurant near Grand Central station and then walked up to St. Patrick’s Cathedral on New York’s famous Fifth Avenue. The streets were crowded with holiday tourists and shoppers, especially in front of the decorated windows of Saks Fifth Avenue. As usual the cathedral itself was packed with tourists walking up and down the aisles.
As so often happens in NYC, we came upon an unexpected surprise. Standing around the main altar was a large chorus of Filipino young men and women singing songs associated with their country’s traditional celebration of the upcoming season of Advent, the four weeks preceding Christmas in the Catholic church calendar. The girls and women wore colorful gowns of white and red and the boys and men were also in white. The colors matched the joy of the expressions on their faces and the songs they sang.
I know that this observation is based on anecdotal evidence, but I believe that as more and more of our young people turn their backs on traditional morality and beliefs, we will continue to see an increasing rate of suicides and drug abuse in this country. Someone once said that when people cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything. That is true, but it is also true that many wind up believing in nothing.
Isn’t it odd that the word “advent” is contained in the word, “adventure?” Advent is not just a time of preparation for Christmas, it is a time for Christians to consider how far they have progressed on the great adventure of life. The Catholic Church did not invent the great virtues of faith, hope, and charity. Christians believe that these virtues are gifts of God. When people have nothing to believe in or hope for, why go on living?
Francis P. DeStefano, Ph.D., of Fairfield, is a writer, lecturer, historian and retired financial planner.
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