Lawrence Summers warns that data showing increased mortality rates among the young is “the most disturbing set of data on America that I have encountered in a long time,” after life expectancy in the U.S. dropped to the same level seen in 1996.
“This transcends politics,” warned Summers on Twitter on Friday, linking to an analysis from Financial Times journalist John Burn-Murdoch exploring the U.S.’s worse record on mortality compared to other developed economies.
The most disturbing set of data on America that I have encountered in a long time. This transcends politics.
This is especially scary remembering that demographics were the best early warning on the collapse of the USSR. https://t.co/knrLf2GJkg…
— Lawrence H. Summers (@LHSummers) March 31, 2023
Summers highlighted two statistics from the FT’s analysis. First, one in 25 five-year-olds in the U.S. will die before their 40th birthday, far above the levels recorded in peer countries. Second, 75-year-old Americans have the same chance of surviving to a given age as other developed economies.
Together, these two statistics imply that the U.S.’s problem with mortality lies with younger Americans dying too early, rather than older Americans not living as long as their fellow elderly Europeans.
The U.S. reported drops in life expectancy in 2020 and 2021, largely due to the pandemic. “COVID-19 was the leading cause contributing negatively to the change in life expectancy for the total population,” wrote researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year, noting that COVID-19 deaths contributed about half of the increase in “cause-specific” death rates.
But the FT’s analysis shows that the U.S. would still have reported a drop in life expectancy in 2021 even without the COVID pandemic. Burn-Murdoch estimates that 9.4 million years of life were lost by “external causes”—including drug overdoses, gun violence, and dangerous driving—in 2021, compared to the 9.1 million years of life lost due to COVID throughout the entire pandemic.
The U.S. is reporting poor statistics on mortality despite the country being much wealthier than other developed economies, with a GDP per capita about 50% higher than the same figure in the U.K.
The high mortality rate for younger Americans “is especially scary remembering that demographics were the best early warning on the collapse of the USSR,” tweeted Summers.
Death rates in the Soviet Union started to increase from the 1960s onwards, alongside a fall in birth rates. This trend worsened after the USSR’s collapse, with Russian deaths overtaking births for much of the country’s post-Soviet history. The increase in mortality has been especially stark among working-age males, with increases in death rates from alcohol, violence and other non-natural causes.
Russia’s population peaked at 148.6 million in 1994. The country’s official census put its population at 147 million in 2021, which includes those living in Crimea and Sevastapol, which Russia annexed in 2014. The United Nations, whose figures for Russia exclude Crimea, estimate Russia’s population to be 144 million.
Other countries are worried about demographic change, though these concerns are focused on collapsing birth rates than higher death rates. East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and China are reporting a record low number of new births. Governments fear this demographic transition will lead to fewer workers supporting a growing number of elderly people, constraining economic growth.
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