Correlation, Causation, and Life Expectancy

“U.S. Life Expectancy Fell by 1.5 Years in 2020, the Biggest Decline in Generations” said the headline in the July 21, 2021 Wall Street Journal. The article went on to explain, “Life expectancy in the U.S. fell by 1.5 years in 2020, the biggest decline since at least World War II, as the Covid-19 pandemic killed hundreds of thousands and exacerbated crises in drug overdoses, homicides and some chronic diseases.” Correlation is not causation. In other words, just because two or more factors appear to correlate, it is not necessarily true that one caused the other. But in this case, why not expect the coronavirus, coupled with growing lawlessness in U.S. cities, to drag down overall life expectancy in our country? No surprise here, nothing to see, move along…

iHowever, a persistent reader would find this information buried deep in the article: “U.S. longevity had been largely stagnant since 2010, even declining in three of those years, due in part to an increase in deaths from drug overdoses, rising death rates from heart disease for middle-aged Americans and other public health crises.” Wait a minute, Covid-19 did not arrive in the US until 2019 or 2020, depending on whom we believe. US life expectancy had been rising for years, even decades, so what happened in 2010 to arrest that progress? One thing that comes to mind is the startup of Obamacare in 2010. Regardless of what you think of Obamacare, it was (and continues to be) a major intrusion of federal and state bureaucracies into U.S. healthcare. Did Obamacare contribute to life expectancy stagnating and sometimes dropping, starting in 2010? Maybe, maybe not. When did the opioid crisis really take off in the U.S.? What else might have started in 2010? Correlation is not causation, and given the politics of the matter, a researcher may have a hard time ferreting out the truth. Anyone looking for a dissertation topic involving U.S. health and government policies?

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