Doom and Gloom

by Russ Roberts on December 9, 2005

in Health

Whenever I hear people complaining or worrying about how modern agriculture or technology is poisoning us and giving us cancer, I always point out the U.S. life expectancy numbers.  Americans are lviing longer than ever.  That’s not to say that there might be things we could change and live even longer if we so choose, but overall, taking all factors into account, we’re healthier, despite all the cigarettes and ice cream and fatty foods and insufficient exercise and unclean air and too many cars and so on and so on and so on.

The latest numbers would warm Julian Simon’s ever-optimistic heart if it were still beating.  The AP headline (ht: Drudge):

U.S. Life Expectancy Hits All-Time High

Alas, despite the cheerful headline, the reporter, Mike Stobbe (or his editors, perhaps) cannot bear to begin with such good news.  Instead, we get doom and gloom:

After a century of nearly uninterrupted medical
improvements and longer lives, it looks like the baby boomers could
screw things up. A new government study shows deaths from heart
disease, cancer and stroke continue to drop, but it also shows that
half of Americans ages 55 to 64 _ including the oldest of the baby
boomers _ have high blood pressure, and two in five are obese.

The baby boomers could screw things up?  Putting aside the charmless language, what does that mean?  Is there a prize for living longer that we get as a nation, that is now in jeopardy, like some gold-medal streak for basketball in the Olympics?  The implication is that if we fail to keep living longer we’ll shame our ancestors who kept on the straight and narrow.

If we like ice cream and smoking and watching TV, isn’t it possible that we prefer the pleasures of those alleged vices to a longer life?  And of course, it’s also possible we will have our cake and eat it too, that even with our stressful obesity being out of control, we might still live longer anyway.  The reporter grudgingly admits it:

Medical improvements in coming years might offset
these problems before they affect life expectancy, but there are no
promises, health officials said.

Not until the sixth paragraph of the article, having endured the lecture on our naughty high blood pressure and obesity, do we get the "news":

Among the findings: Deaths from heart disease,
cancer and stroke, the nation’s three leading killers, all dropped in
2003. They were down between 2 percent and 5 percent.


Americans’ life expectancy also increased again. According to the
government’s calculations, a child born in 2003 can expect to live 77.6
years on average, up from 77.3 the year before. In 1990, life
expectancy was 75.4 years.

U.S.
life expectancy has been rising almost without interruption since
thanks to several factors, including extraordinary advances in medicine
and sanitation, and declines in some types of unhealthy behavior, such
as smoking.

Why doesn’t the increase in life expectancy lead the article, given the headline?  Well, those loving health officials are worried about us:

Still, health officials are trying to draw
attention to unhealthy behavior, and this year chose to break out data
on people 55 to 64.

The National Center for Health Statistics looked specifically at the 55-to-64-year-olds:

The center found that rates of hypertension and obesity were higher for the current group of 55-to-64-year-olds.


When the 1930s group was tested around 1990, 42 percent had high blood
pressure. That compares with 50 percent for the 1940s group. The older
group’s rate of obesity was 31 percent back then, compared with 39
percent for the 1940s babies now.

Sounds very bleak, doesn’t it?  But then comes some cheering news:

Because of the advent of
cholesterol-lowering drugs, the prevalence of high cholesterol actually
went down, from 35 percent for the 1930s group to 23 percent among the
1940s babies.

I don’t know why the reporter was allowed to sneak that in.  It does seem to challenge the earlier statement:

Medical improvements in coming years might offset
these problems before they affect life expectancy, but there are no
promises, health officials said.

No promises.  But evidently some improvements have already arrived.  And then in the closing paragraphs of the story, a few odds and ends–slightly more than a quarter of all Americans have lower back pain, spending on health care is up, pharmaceutical spending is way up and oh, this little nugget:

Infant mortality in 2003 dropped slightly to 6.9
deaths per 1,000 live births. Infant mortality has been on a general
decline since 1958.

More good news.  But in case you thought it was something to cheer about, it’s really just a force of nature, sort of, or maybe just good luck.  After all, it’s been declining since 1958.  it’s a trend, don’t you see?  So what would you expect?  No big deal.

Doesn’t declining infant mortality belong a little higher up in the story?

Ignore the doom and gloomers.  You can even risk just a titch of complaceny, the reaction they evidently dread above all others.  This is a very good time to be alive.

 
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{ 5 comments }

mark December 9, 2005 at 3:30 pm

it's true that life expectancy is increasing. but is someone necessarily a "doom and gloomer" just because they try to point out a potential health hazard?

Since the 40s, we've learned to synthesize something like 100,000 compounds that human beings have never been exposed to before. Some percentage of these are going to cause cancer. If one of them does cause cancer, and someone says "we shouldn't be using this chemical, it causes cancer!", are they a doomsayer? That seems silly. Sure, there are Cassandras out there… but Cassandra was right.

Javier December 10, 2005 at 4:25 am

I have a question: in the AP press release, there is a little graph which claims that the US life expectancy is 77 years, Japan's is 75, Britain's is 70. This data contradicts everything I've ever heard–the US is usually the laggard. Is this just a mistake?

tricia December 10, 2005 at 7:52 pm

Mark, the short answer is YES!!!

When one engages is gloom and doom one apeals to a set of facts that do not have a direct connection with the major trend one is reporting on or discussing. The TREND is POSITIVE!!! The data point while true appears NOT to be meaningful. One could go further and say that the fact that we are more obese (a measure (BMI) by the way that was set for polical reasons)is not a good predictor of longevity.

I guess what I am saying Mark is when irrelevant facts are brought to the table to bring gloom and doom it should be called out. You may be right that the term gloom and doom is not accurate. A more correct term would capture the malicious and controling nature of the speaker.

Cris Sullivan December 10, 2005 at 8:44 pm

Mark — We need to measure the costs and benefits of these compounds. Say something does cause cancer in 100 people and cures another terminal illness in 1000. Which do we go with?

Russ — This was a fantastic read on the article and one of the best entries I've seen in awhile. Thank you!

Darin London December 13, 2005 at 12:34 pm

I think the underlying support for the health-nazi agenda is the fact that we, as
individuals, are not paying for our healthcare. As long as someone other than us,
whether employer or gubmt, pays for our healthcare in the presence of pan-population budget constratints, there will be an incentive for these institution to attempt to socially engineer our behavior to minimize healthcare costs.

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