According to a recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy has actually declined in the U.S. for the first time in 20 years,1,2,3,4 dropping from 76.5 years in 2014 to 76.3 in 2015 for men, and from 81.3 to 81.2 for women. This means American women now die, on average, about one month earlier than they did in 2014, and men lost about two months of lifespan in two years.5
In all, there were 86,212 more deaths in 2015 compared to 2014 — a rise in death rate of about 1 percent in 2015 — and as of 2015, the U.S. ranks 29th out of 43 countries for life expectancy,6lagging behind countries like Chile, Costa Rica, Slovenia, Korea and the Czech Republic. In 2014, the U.S. ranked 28th.7
Moreover, according to Dr. Peter Muennig, a professor of health policy and management at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, this decline in life expectancy is a “uniquely American phenomenon.” No other developed countries experienced this decline. “A 0.1 decrease is huge,” Dr. Muennig added. “Life expectancy increases, and that’s very consistent and predictable, so to see it decrease, that’s very alarming.”
Meanwhile, both dietary patterns and health care availability in South Korea — which has made some of the greatest life expectancy gains — offer valuable hints at what Americans need to do to change course.
Analysis suggests South Koreans may soon outlive the rest of the world.
Another extensive analysis 9 of longevity patterns in 35 industrialized nations projects life expectancy at birth in the U.S. will continue to lag, such that by 2030, it will be on par with the Czech Republic, Croatia and Mexico.10,11,12
Meanwhile, South Koreans of both sexes and Hungarian men and have made the greatest life expectancy gains. By 2030, South Korean women are projected to have an average lifespan of 90.8, making it the first nation to break the 90-year life expectancy barrier.
This is a significant feat, considering South Korea ranked 29th for women’s life expectancy in 1985.13As for the cause of the U.S.’ failure to keep pace, The Washington Post notes:14
“The reasons for the United States’ lag are well known. It has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any of the countries in the study, and the highest obesity rate. It is the only one without universal health insurance coverage and has the largest share of unmet health care needs due to financial costs,” the researchers wrote …
In contrast to the United States, South Korea “has a remarkable investment in early childhood nutrition,” has been taking advantage of medical advances and technology across its population and has some of the world’s lowest obesity and hypertension rates … “They seem to be getting a lot of things right at the same time, and getting them right for almost everyone”, [lead author Majid Ezzati] said.
Differences in diet offer valuable clues…
Japan has long been noted for its longevity, but that’s starting to change as Western dietary influences have crept in. Again and again, we see health outcomes decline when countries adopt a Western style diet with processed foods as a staple.
Meanwhile, South Korea’s use of nutritional supplements, especially probiotics for both adults and infants has risen, and their fermented food and omega-3 intake is among the highest in the world. In my view, this is what you would call a major clue.
Research15 published last year showed South Korea, along with Japan, the Primorskry region of Russia, Denmark, Norway and Greenland and a few other indigenous regions had the highest blood levels of the animal-based omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) — the latter of which is a primary structural component of every cell in your body.
Americans and Canadians both have “very low” levels, which may increase the risk of chronic disease. Use of vitamins and dietary supplements in South Korea also rose by 4 percent in 2016, and probiotic sales rose by 7 percent.
According to Euromonitor, “these products are increasingly seen as essential consumer health items among South Koreans.”16 South Koreans also consume 2 million tons of kimchi each year — a traditional dish of fermented cabbage. As noted in a previous Food First article:17
“[K]imchi is the one food that most Koreans simply ‘cannot live without.’ 18 … [It] seems to make its way into every meal of the day. In autumn, South Korean employers even give their workers a customary ‘kimchi bonus,’ helping to subsidize the ingredients for their annual kimchi supply.19”
Considering that most Americans eat a primarily processed food diet, high in sugars and low in healthy fats, fiber and fermented foods, it shouldn’t come as a major shock that life expectancy might suffer. Advertisements might lead you to believe this processed fare will give you all the nutrition you need for a long and happy life, but your body cannot be fooled.
The toll of chronic illness and opioid addiction on Americans:
The cost of health care in the U.S. is also the highest in the world, and continues to rise. Health care now accounts for 17 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).20 But even though the U.S. spends more than $3 trillion on health care each year, it is the worst performing system ranked by multiple aspects of care.21
“The health of individuals in the [USA] is increasingly being defined by complexity and multi-morbidity, the co-occurrence of two or more chronic medical conditions.”
Addiction to opioid painkillers appears to be another significant contributor to declining life expectancy in the U.S.24,25 Deaths from synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, rose by a whopping 73 percent between 2014 and 2015. Prescription pain killers alone killed 17,536 people last year.
According to Robert Anderson, who oversees death statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this. Certainly not in modern times.”
More than half of the American diet is ultra-junk food.
Ponder these parallel statistics:
- Half of all Americans are chronically ill.
- Half of all Americans are also either pre-diabetic or diabetic. 26,27
- Nearly 60 percent of the American diet is ULTRA-processed junk food, and these products also account for 90 percent of the added sugar consumption in the U.S.28,29
- As much as 40 percent of American health care expenditures are for diseases directly related to the overconsumption of sugar.30
- Less than 1 percent of Americans’ daily calorie intake comes from vegetables.31,32,33
While correlation does not definitively prove causality, I for one have no doubt these statistics are related. The dangers of eating too much added sugar have been well-established, and have even become officially recognized. For the first time ever, the 2015-2020 U.S. dietary guidelines34recommend limiting your sugar intake to a maximum of 10 percent of your daily calories.35
Without a doubt, lowering your consumption of added and natural sugars is at the top of the list if you’re overweight, insulin resistant or struggle with any chronic disease. This includes sugar from refined non-vegetable fiber carbs such as potatoes, bagels and breakfast cereal. Recent research actually suggests these foods are as risky as smoking, increasing your risk for lung cancer by as much as 49 percent, even if you’ve never smoked.36
High glycemic foods, i.e., refined carbs high in sugar, promote insulin resistance and obesity, and this isn’t the first time a connection has been made between a high-sugar and/or obesity and cancer.
In fact, cancer specialists who discussed the cancer trend at the 2015 American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago warned that obesity will likely overtake smoking as the principal cause of 10 different types of cancer within the next decade.37 Obesity, also associated with worsened prognosis after a cancer diagnosis, raises your risk of dying from the cancer treatment, and raises your risk of additional malignancies and comorbidities.38
Why fermented food is so important for your health:
In ancient societies, fermentation was a very common food preservation method. And, while they may not have understood the mechanisms involved, by eating fermented foods, their overall health flourished — principally, their intestinal health. Today, we have a much more comprehensive understanding of the human microbiome, and its influence on health. We also now know that the best ways to improve gut health are to consume fermented foods on a regular basis and avoid sugar and processed foods.
About 80 percent of your immune system is in your gut. When your intestinal flora is skewed toward more sugar-loving pathogenic microbes, health problems of all kinds are more prevalent, from obesity and diabetes 39,40 to allergies and autoimmune diseases. The fiber and wide variety of beneficial bacteria (probiotics) found in traditionally fermented and cultured foods help protect against disease by improving your microbiome, and also help chelate harmful toxins and heavy metals from your system.
Nearly all organic plant matter (and even the dust covering the soil) contains lacto-fermenting bacteria called Lactobacilli, or Lactobacillus acidophilus. As Lactobacilli start multiplying in the fermentation process, they produce lactic acid. When lactic acid is produced, it helps preserve the food. Another benefit is that fermentation makes nutrients more bioavailable.
It also provides instant energy. Several studies indicate the many amazing benefits fermentation brings to your gut health. For instance, one week after sauerkraut begins fermenting, the vitamin C content rises to around six times higher than in the same amount of plain cabbage.41
Another fermentation advantage is vitamin K2, which works in tandem with and provides many of the same benefits as vitamin D. Certain cheeses, homemade yogurt, kefir and natto (fermented soy) are good sources of vitamin K2. There are only certain strains of bacteria that make K2, so not all fermented foods will contain it. Most commercial yogurts are virtually devoid of vitamin K2, and while certain types of cheeses, such as Gouda, Brie and Edam are high in K2, others are not.
It really depends on the specific bacteria present during the fermentation. When fermenting your own foods at home, using a special starter culture designed with bacterial strains that produce vitamin K2 will ensure a vitamin-K2-rich result.
Reclaiming your health is not rocket science.
The data and statistics presented in all of these studies and analyses give us significant clues as to what works and what doesn’t — what promotes health and what will kill you off sooner rather than later. The fact that the average American lost up to two months of life expectancy from one year to the next should be a wakeup call.
Clearly, the Affordable Health Care Act did not have a positive influence. This makes sense when you consider that American health care is grossly lacking in common sense disease prevention. Making health care available to more low-income individuals makes no difference when treatment strategies are primarily focused on costly pharmacological interventions rather than low- or no-cost lifestyle recommendations.
For starters, if you seek wellness, you’d be wise to ignore any and all food commercials and most conventional dietary advice, which still to this day promote dangerous low-fat myths and condone the use of artificial sweeteners. In fact, a health-promoting diet is more or less the conventional food pyramid turned upside-down. My free optimal nutrition plan will lead you through the needed changes one step at a time.
Higher healthy fat consumption, lower sugar intake, and increased omega-3, fiber and fermented foods are of particular importance. The shift from sugar to fat will allow your body to become an efficient fat burner, which has many tremendous benefits.
The animal-based omega-3 fat DHA is a necessary component for all of your body’s cells, and fiber-rich and fermented foods will help optimize your gut microbiome. Switching to organic whole foods is also recommended, as this will help you avoid harmful agricultural chemicals as well.
U.S. statistics may be depressing, but the significant improvements made by countries like South Korea also offer hope. It’s rather remarkable to think a nation may soon have an average lifespan of 90! We can all get there. But to do so, we have to change our dietary status quo, and realize the price we pay for all of our convenience foods.
References: see below.
About the author:
Born and raised in the inner city of Chicago, IL, Dr. Joseph Mercola is an osteopathic physician trained in both traditional and natural medicine. Board-certified in family medicine, Dr. Mercola served as the chairman of the family medicine department at St. Alexius Medical Center for five years, and in 2012 was granted fellowship status by the American College of Nutrition (ACN).
While in practice in the late 80s, Dr. Mercola realized the drugs he was prescribing to chronically ill patients were not working. By the early 90s, he began exploring the world of natural medicine, and soon changed the way he practiced medicine.
In 1997 Dr. Mercola founded Mercola.com, which is now routinely among the top 10 health sites on the internet. His passion is to transform the traditional medical paradigm in the United States. “The existing medical establishment is responsible for killing and permanently injuring millions of Americans… You want practical health solutions without the hype, and that’s what I offer.”