For much of the 20th century, medical progress seemed limitless. Antibiotics revolutionized the care of infections. Vaccines turned deadly childhood diseases into distant memories. Americans lived longer, healthier lives than their parents. Yet today, some of the greatest success stories in public health are unraveling.
Even as the world struggles to control a mysterious new virus known as COVID-19, U.S. health officials are refighting battles they thought they had won, such as halting measles outbreaks, reducing deaths from heart disease and protecting young people from tobacco. These hard-fought victories are at risk as parents avoid vaccinating children, obesity rates climb, and vaping spreads like wildfire among teens.
Things looked promising for American health in 2014, when life expectancy hit 78.9 years. Then, life expectancy declined for three straight years — the longest sustained drop since the Spanish flu of 1918, which killed about 675,000 Americans and 50 million people worldwide, said Dr. Steven Woolf, a professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Although life expectancy inched up slightly in 2018, it hasn’t yet regained the lost ground, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“These trends show we’re going backwards,” said Dr. Sadiya Khan, an assistant professor of cardiology and epidemiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
While the reasons for the backsliding are complex, many public health problems could have been avoided, experts say, through stronger action by federal regulators and more attention to prevention.