The following article originally appeared Jan. 4, 2002, in National Review Online.
There's good news for the New Year. Americans are living longer than at any time in history76.9 years, on average. This is testimony to both the vibrancy of nature and the ingenuity of man.
The combination of fewer infant deaths and the longevity of seniors has extended U.S. life expectancy to an impressive 79.5 years for women and 74.1 years for men, according to the latest research conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics. In fact, centenarians now rank among the fastest-growing age groups in the nation, with an estimated 75,000 among us having celebrated their 100th birthday.
Life expectancy in America circa 1900 was a mere 48 years (an improvement, nonetheless, over the Stone Age's typical 25-year lifespan). Compared to the gains in the past century, however, no period in history has experienced such a dramatic increase in life expectancy.
What sets the 20th century apart, of course, is the industrial and technological progress fueled by free minds and free markets. As authors Stephen Moore and the late Julian Simon note in "It's Getting Better All the Time": "The unique American formula of individual liberty and free enterprise has cultivated risk taking, experimentation, innovation, and scientific exploration on a grand scale that has never occurred anywhere before."
Superior pharmaceuticals and diagnostic tools are products largely borne of independent thought and the profit motive. An array of powerful antibiotics and vaccines, for example, has subjugated the infectious diseases that once ranked as the leading causes of death. Tuberculosis, polio, typhoid, whooping cough, and pneumonia claimed 797 lives per 100,000 in 1900. Nowadays, such deaths number less than 40 per 100,000 population, and account for only 4.2 percent of all disability-adjusted life-years lost.
The wonders of modern chemistry and mass production have likewise vastly improved living standards and prolonged livesthe hand wringing of environmental doomsayers notwithstanding. Absent chlorination, insecticides, and refrigeration, for example, 25 percent of us would likely have died before our first birthday, and an equal number would never have been conceived, our existence canceled out by the premature death of mother or grandmother.
Today, age-adjusted death rates in the United States have reached a record low of 872.4 per 100,000 people. Infant mortality has dropped to the lowest level ever6.9 infant deaths per 1,000 live births. The increases that have occurred are largely confined to diseases that disproportionately affect the elderly, including Alzheimer's, pneumonitis, and influenza.
Cancer and heart disease (which together account for more than half of all deaths) also continue to decline, according to the government report. This most welcome trend wholly contradicts the popular notion of Americans as being enveloped by clouds of toxic tailpipe emissions and poisoned by pesticide-soaked produce. Air quality, in fact, has vastly improved, with carbon monoxide concentrations down a whopping 57 percent in the past two decades, and with lead down 94 percent; sulfur dioxide, 50 percent; and nitrogen dioxide, 25 percent. Moreoveraided by pesticides and a bit of genetic engineeringa diet rich in cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables has never been more abundant and affordable.
Our waterways are cleaner, too. Along 98 percent of the Great Lakes shoreline, for example, water quality is rated "good" by state government, for both swimming and drinking. (The heavy metals said to contaminate some lakes' fish are largely remnants of a bygone era.)
Still, the Environmental Protection Agency churns out regulations that bear little rational relation to actually improving our lives. Research by the Harvard School of Public Health, for example, found that it costs some $8 million to save one year of a hypothetical life under the agency's command-and-control regime. But the same benefit can be had for 1/400th of the costthat is, through $19,000 worth of medical care.
Death from cardiovascular disease, meanwhile, has fallen 50 percent, on an age-adjusted basis, since the 1950s. Blood-pressure drugs, surgery, and emergency treatment all have contributed, but the most significant factor remains individual willpower. Smoking cessation and other changes in personal behavior prolong life far more than a Federal Register brimming with public-health regulations.
For example: A 35-year-old who burns 2,000 worth of calories through exercise each week gains more than six years of life expectancy, on average. (Likewise, Russian men could reclaim the 10 years of life expectancy they've lost to alcoholism in the past 15 years.)
Such behavioral change is directly correlated to educational attainment and affluence, belying the statist notion that we need a tax on fat, a new food pyramid, or some other form of government nannyism. This is as true across international borders as it is within state lines. The infant mortality rate in poverty-mired Bangladesh, for example, is a tragic 69.85 deaths per 1,000 live births, compared to the United States' 6.9. Hawaii, meanwhile, boasts both a high level of median income ($48,000) and the lowest mortality rate in Americawhile Mississippi, with its much lower income level ($31,500), suffers the nation's worst mortality rate.
America cannot boast of the longest life expectancy worldwide. Japan currently takes top honors, apparently a consequence of its genetic homogeneity and peculiar diet. Still, no nation can equal the United States in its astonishing progress, this past century, in enriching and prolonging so many lives.