For a variety of reasons -- among them a 60th birthday and news that three more significant figures from my life didn’t reach that milestone -- I’ve been contemplating that most foreboding of subjects: life expectancy.

My curiosity is driven by events and informed by an observation made several years ago in a story by a student journalist. An IU Health Center source said her generation -- the student’s -- due to lifestyle and environmental factors, would be the first in American history to live shorter lives than their parents.

"The CDC’s annual National Vital Statistic Reports show five of the 11 years between 1997 and 2007 had zero or negative adjustments in life expectancies."Based on my six decades on earth, three of them spent writing about health and the environment, I’m wondering if my generation might not claim that distinction instead. The three old friends whose deaths I learned of this week bring to 12 the number of people I’ve been close to in my life who have died before they reached 60.

Eight of my departed friends grew up with me on the industrial east side of Indianapolis, within a five-block radius of my childhood home in a late-1950s cornfield-turned-working-class subdivision. Their dads were milkmen, carpenters, car salesmen and factory workers at the nearby Ford, Chrysler and Western Electric plants. Most stayed in Indianapolis. Three died young, the rest in their 50s.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says heart disease and cancer accounted for almost half of all deaths in 2006, 26 and 23.1 percent, respectively. Strokes, lung disease and accidents rounded out the top five, altogether accounting for nearly two out of every three deaths in America, or 64.9 percent.

Of those whose fates I know, my friends have died from all of those except stroke.

Of the 11 kids I considered brothers at one time or another between third and 12th grades, there’s only one I know for sure who is still alive and three I’m not sure about. I don’t think many, if any, of the other seven lived as long as their dads.

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That’s an inordinate number of people falling 20 or more years short of what the CDC says was a life expectancy of 77.9 years for a child born in 2007, the latest year on which final data are available. So the first stop on my quest for information about life-expectancy trends was the CDC, where I found data suggesting increases in expectancy are indeed tapering off.
"Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing through 1999 those who were already disadvantaged did not benefit from the gains in life expectancy experienced by the advantaged, and some became even worse off."
For example, the CDC’s annual National Vital Statistic Reports show five of the 11 years between 1997 and 2007 had zero or negative adjustments in life expectancies. Still, the report, compiled as “Deaths: Final Data,” says life expectancy in the United States during the 1997-07 decade continued its century-old upward trend, growing by 1.4 years.

That 1.4-year jump, however, was less than half the historic increases over the past century. According to a 2006 Congressional Research Service study titled “Life Expectancy in the United States,” the average per-decade increase between 1902 and 1991 was 2.9 years.

Study author Laura B. Shrestha, however, offered a caveat on the data. “Later year estimates are more reliable than those of the early 20th century,” she wrote.

The CDC advises likewise in its annual reports, saying its data “are based on a newly revised methodology and may differ from figures previously published.”

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So, other than confirming that 12 people I knew well at some point in their lives died roughly 20 years before they should have, the CDC data didn’t confirm or deny the student story's shorter-lifespan prediction. More telling, perhaps, was a 2008 study from the Harvard School of Public Health and University of Washington titled, “Life Expectancy Worsening or Stagnating for Large Segment of the U.S. Population.”

“Overall life expectancy in the U.S. increased more than seven years for men and more than six years for women between 1960 and 2000,” a Harvard news release on the paper says. “Now, a new, long-term study of mortality trends in U.S. counties over the same four decades reports a troubling finding: These gains are not reaching many parts of the country; rather, the life expectancy of a significant segment of the population is actually declining or at best stagnating.”
"In a substantial number of counties, mortality actually increased, especially for women, a shift that the researchers call ‘the reversal of fortunes.'"
The study compared death rates across counties nationwide and found that, for example, between 1961 and 1983, the differences in death rates among and across all counties fell, regardless of socioeconomics or gender.

“However, beginning in the early 1980s the differences in death rates among/across different counties began to increase,” the release said. Death rates were no longer falling in the “worst-off counties.”

To the contrary. “In a substantial number of counties, mortality actually increased, especially for women, a shift that the researchers call ‘the reversal of fortunes,’” the release continued.

In a section titled “What Do these Findings Mean?” the study authors conclude, “Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing through 1999 those who were already disadvantaged did not benefit from the gains in life expectancy experienced by the advantaged, and some became even worse off.”

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Socioeconomics might explain some of my experience with early death but certainly not all. Neither does geography. One of the three latest stories I heard was about a childhood friend who lived on disability, five blocks from his boyhood home. Another was a former fraternity brother from Jasper who was an adjunct lecturer at Georgia State University. The third was a Vietnam Vet, a Marine.

No, the issue of life expectancy is perhaps the biggest of them all, now that I’ve thought about it some. And the lessons to be learned about the crazy characters who passed through my life are inconsequential, or at least I hope they are.

It’s going to take time, a lot of it, to answer this one.

To be continued, I hope.

Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.