In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, life expectancy numbers in the U.S. became a central topic of discussion. The magnitude of the pandemic revealed underlying cracks in the healthcare system and widened the disparity in life expectancy across different socioeconomic groups.
Given this reality, public health leaders must harness this data and turn it into a force for positive change in order to protect future generations and communities.
What is Life Span Equality?
The online Master of Public Health (MPH) program from Eastern Washington University (EWU) emphasizes a sociological perspective on healthcare inequities. The program equips graduates with tools to address and rectify these disparities. A core tenet of its teachings revolve around the importance of life span equality. But why is this metric so critical?
According to a study published by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), life span equality is vital because it isn’t just about the average number of years a person is expected to live. It’s about ensuring that all individuals, regardless of their backgrounds, have an equal opportunity for longevity. If one demographic’s life expectancy is significantly lower than another’s, it often points to systemic issues.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought these issues into sharp view. A report highlights that the pandemic didn’t impact all groups equally. Socioeconomic factors played a massive role in determining vulnerability to the virus, directly affecting life expectancy.
The Experts Weigh In
This correlation between socioeconomic status and life expectancy isn’t new. A Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) article already underscores the difference in life expectancy based on socioeconomic factors. People in lower economic brackets face challenges ranging from limited access to healthcare to increased exposure to environmental hazards. These challenges can shave years off one’s life.
The shocking decline in U.S. life expectancy is linked to various issues including opioid overdose, obesity and systemic inequalities. “We have a wonderful sick care system that takes care of very sick people but a very inadequate health care system,” states Asaf Bitton, executive director of Ariadne Labs. He notes that inequities disallow people from the “upstream factors” that keep people healthy, such as clean air and water, a place to live, proper education and healthy food.
A National Public Radio (NPR) article also discusses how the life expectancy decline represents a collective failure in public health, stating that while “Americans eat more calories and lack universal access to health care,” other major contributors to poor public health include “higher child poverty, racial segregation, social isolation, and more. Even the way cities are designed makes access to good food more difficult.”
Public Health Knowledge is Power
These concerns bring us to an essential question: Why is it crucial for public health professionals to understand these numbers?
First, life expectancy reflects a community’s overall health. When public health officials can identify the factors dragging down life expectancy, they can create targeted interventions. For instance, if opioid overdoses are a significant factor in a community, then introducing addiction support and treatment can have a tangible effect on life expectancy numbers.
Moreover, understanding life expectancy provides a roadmap for policy and funding allocation. With finite resources, public health departments need to prioritize where they can make the most significant impact.
Finally, professionals armed with this knowledge can advocate more effectively. When they can point to hard numbers and prove that certain interventions can improve life expectancy, they’re more likely to receive the support and funding needed.
Life Expectancy: More Than Just Data
Life expectancy numbers aren’t just cold statistics. They’re stories of communities, challenges faced and opportunities missed. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s more important than ever for public health professionals to understand and act on these numbers.
As EWU emphasizes in its public health program, sociological factors and healthcare disparities are intrinsically linked. Specifically, EWU’s program has a course called Health Equity and Advocacy that helps students understand the intricacies and complexities of life expectancy equality. It prepares them to, “Discuss the means by which structural bias, social inequities and racism undermine health and create challenges to achieving health equity at organizational, community and societal levels.”
By addressing these inequalities head-on, public health professionals will contribute to increased life expectancy and ensure individual lives are filled with health, dignity and equal opportunities for all.
Learn more about EWU’s online MPH program.