Why Are Americans Getting Sicker Younger?

Get the facts on six startling health trends.

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For the first time in over twenty years, US life expectancy has broken its steady upward trend. From 2014 to 2015, it fell by 0.1 years to 78.8. And death rates rose for eight of the top ten causes of death, including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and suicide.

You might have noticed some troubling headlines lately too—ones about young Americans dying from conditions they shouldn’t even be at risk for. What’s making young Americans sick? Could you be at risk?

Roy Habib, MD, FACP, an internal medicine doctor from LewisGale Medical Center in Salem, Virginia, discusses six shocking disease trends everyone should know about.

Medically reviewed in March 2020.

Suicide rates are rising, especially among teenage girls

2 / 7 Suicide rates are rising, especially among teenage girls

The US suicide rate increased by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while suicide affects every demographic, girls today may be especially vulnerable.

During the study period, suicides increased by 200 percent among girls ages 10 to 14. Boys in this same age group experienced a 37 percent increase during the time period as well. 

Right now researchers can only make educated guesses about the reasons for these trends. High rates among teenage girls may be due, in part, to the early onset of puberty, which often coincides with the onset of mental health disorders. Social pressures, bullying, rigorous school schedules, a lack of access to mental health services and the widespread availability of lethal overdose options like opioids also play a role.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call 9-1-1 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Know the risk factors for suicide. 

Opioids have killed more young people than the Vietnam War

3 / 7 Opioids have killed more young people than the Vietnam War

Drug overdoses may now be the number one cause of death for people under 50, according to a June, 2017 New York Times investigation. Official 2016 stats will be released by the CDC in December, 2017, but the New York Times compiled preliminary data based on records from state health departments, medical examiners and coroners across the country.

The incidence of illegal drug overdose has risen sharply, says Dr. Habib. This is related to a number of factors including the over-prescription and misuse of opioids, leading to addiction.

Opioids are a class of drugs that include heroin and painkillers such as fentanyl and oxycodone. Learn more about the factors contributing to the national opioid epidemic and find out about getting and staying clean. 

Colon cancer doesn’t always wait until your 50s

4 / 7 Colon cancer doesn’t always wait until your 50s

Colon cancer rates have been falling since the mid-1980s, with a couple of alarming exceptions: Cases among 20 to 30something’s have been rising by about one to two percent each year. Cases have also gone up among people ages 40 to 55.

This surprised researchers because people aren’t normally at risk for colon cancer until around age 50, with some exceptions like having African American descent or a strong family history. National screening guidelines don’t even recommend getting your first colonoscopy until age 50 (age 40 or earlier for people at high risk).

Experts aren’t exactly sure why colon cancer is on the rise among Millenials and Gen Xers, but many cancers can be traced to certain lifestyle factors, explains Habib.

“A diet high in protein and low in fiber can lead to gastrointestinal diseases such as colon cancer,” he says. Quitting smoking (with the proper help), eating less red meat and exercising regularly are proven ways to lower your risk.

Arthritis isn’t just for grannies

5 / 7 Arthritis isn’t just for grannies

Osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, is normally considered a disease of aging. Your risk of developing it increases as you get older. In fact, it affects more than 80 percent of people over age 55 (versus 0.1 percent of those between 25 and 34).

So what’s with the news stories about youngsters developing this condition? First of all, other factors like female gender, old injuries and even a person’s job can affect osteoarthritis risk. It’s not all about age.

Arthritis can also be related to being overweight and lacking exercise, says Habib. “Spending hours on the Internet or watching TV while sitting or lying in bed often leads to obesity and may subsequently cause spine disorders, back pain and joint disorders,” he explains. “These habits can also lead to depression and isolation.”

At the other end of the spectrum, popular exercise programs like Cross Fit and Tough Mudder may be wearing on active 20something joints. While high intensity training can be an effective form of exercise, some people jump into group classes without undergoing the proper conditioning first. That, combined with explosive movements and a lack of one-on-one attention from instructors, may wear on joints.

Teens are having a hard time hearing

6 / 7 Teens are having a hard time hearing

One in five teens have some degree of hearing loss, according to a study published in JAMA. The World Health Organization (WHO) also estimates around 1.1 billion young adults are at risk for hearing loss due to unsafe sound exposure.

Just half an hour of listening to some headphones at top volume can permanently damage the tiny hair cells on your inner ear, or cochlea, which transmit sound signals to your brain. The more hairs that get damaged, the worse your hearing will become—and they won’t heal over time.

Protect your ears by:

  • Investing in sound-cancelling headphones and make sure ear buds fit properly. That can help keep outside noises from interfering with listening, so you won’t have to turn up the sound.
  • Make sure you can still carry on a regular conversation while wearing headphones.
  • Download an app to put a cap on your phone’s volume control.

If you can hear your teen’s headphones from more than three feet away, ask them to turn down the sound.

Your heart attack risk may be higher than you think

7 / 7 Your heart attack risk may be higher than you think

The modern lifestyle is a setup for heart disease in a number of ways—and it won’t necessarily hit you decades from now. Both heart disease and sudden cardiac death from causes like heart attacks affect people of all ages. In fact, more than 35,000 women under 55 experience a heart attack annually, according to the Women’s Heart Foundation.

Young Americans have access to convenience foods rich in fat and carbohydrates, says Habib. “Most don’t have to walk or bike to school and most don’t have to farm or hunt to find food.”

That, along with excessive sitting for work and school, is just part of the reason why people have heart attacks at surprisingly young ages. Other contributing factors include high stress levels, social isolation and the widespread use of tobacco, alcohol and recreational drugs. Know the signs, plus what to do if you think you’re having a heart attack.

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