Experts have been saying for several years that it could happen, that at some point Americans could expect shorter life spans than their parents.
And now, for a certain segment of the U.S. population — the poorest and least educated among us — it has.
A recent study reported on in the journal “Health Affairs” found that white women in the U.S. who have not completed high school lost five years of life expectancy between 1990 and 2008.
White men without high school diplomas lost three years.
The decline isn't a complete surprise. With growing levels of obesity, public health experts have been warning that we can no longer count on this generation's life expectancy to exceed the previous generation's.
But the size of the drop has surprised experts. A recent New York Times story on the problem likens it to the seven-year drop in life expectancy among men that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union.
This ends nearly a century of steadily increasing life expectancy for all Americans. With improving sanitation, reliable water supply, abundant food and improved medical care, each generation has tended to live longer than the one before.
Over the past 20 years, however, as Americans have become more sedentary they have packed on the pounds.
Today, 28 percent of the adults in Maine are considered obese. If present trends continue, a recent study projected half of Mainers will be obese by 2030.
The outlook is even bleaker for other states. In Mississippi, 35 percent of the population is obese and 67 percent — two of every three people — will be obese by 2030.
Obesity is associated with increased risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Experts say other factors may be hastening the decline in life expectancy.
Women with less than a high school education are more likely to smoke than other women with more education, and more likely to die of an accidental drug overdose.
Poor women are more likely to be raising children alone, decreasing their incomes and increasing the stress in their lives.
Finally, experts point out that these women are less likely to have health insurance coverage, putting them at even greater risk of illness and death.
The American Cancer Society reports that 43 percent of working-age adults with less than a high school diploma have no health insurance compared to 35 percent in 1993.
In any event, the grim statistics show two things:
First, the urgency of extending health insurance coverage to more people in the United States. As we have pointed out time and time again, other nations can cover all of their people, they do it for less money and their people are healthier on average.
It's glib to say those without insurance get their care in emergency rooms. People without insurance simply get less care, their care is uncoordinated and they are more likely to die than people who have adequate health insurance.
Second, this is a crisis of lifestyle and prevention that cannot be solved by newer technology, bigger emergency rooms or medical breakthroughs.
We pay way too much attention to costly surgeries and medical solutions while we starve programs that stress changing unhealthy lifestyles and habits.
Reversing this disturbing trend of shorter life spans will clearly depend on how well we can prevent disease rather than continually treat it.
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and the editorial board.