In HBO's 'One Nation Under Stress,' Dr. Sanjay Gupta Examines U.S. Drop in Life Expectancy

March 20, 2019

By Brian Henry

American life expectancy dropped for the third year in a row in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. What's going on? That's the question director Marc Levin and Dr. Sanjay Gupta try to answer in their new HBO documentary "One Nation Under Stress."

"We know what's driving up these 'deaths of despair' as they're called," Dr. Gupta told Cheddar. "Opioid overdoses, suicide, and liver cirrhosis."

Gupta says the statistics are especially striking when compared to other developed nations.

"Other wealthy countries, similar countries to the United States ー despite the fact that they've had the same challenges to the economy and labor forces and all the things you'd think might cause despair ー their life expectancies continue to go up while ours is going down. The United States is under this unique amount of stress and there are all sorts of things that are really driving that."

Gupta also points out that certain demographic groups are more affected by the decline, particularly white working class Baby Boomers, who are facing "almost an existential sort of stress."

"In the United States, if you look at African-Americans and Hispanics, their mortality rates have been going down ー going in the right direction. It's just whites, and particularly working class whites, whose mortality rates have been going up. And they're the only population in the developed world to have this happen to them."

"These are the sons and daughters of the Greatest Generation. They were supposed to inherit the Earth. Instead they saw jobs leaving, they saw wages going down and now themselves dying at a faster rate than their comparable population around the world," Gupta said. "You're supposed to inherit the Earth, you don't. That sort of stress doesn't go away."

Gupta offered a theory about why white life expectancy appeared to be more affected by stress than that of other demographic groups.

"If you look at blacks overall in this country, the mortality rate is still higher than whites, but continuing to come down," he said. "It could be for African-Americans, they've lived in this chronic state of stress for a significant period of time. They've become more buffered to some of the stress now that the white working class has more recently been exposed to. We don't know for sure, but the data doesn't lie. Right now, African-Americans still have higher mortality rates but the lines are getting closer to intersecting."

Levin says there's one common theme among stressed-out Americans.

"The number one stresser is money. Having the means, having economic security," Levin told Cheddar.

"What we've found, the increased income inequality in the United States, which has gotten worse and worse, it's not just the have 'not's' that are under stress and seeing health consequences. It affects the 'haves' also."

"Amongst wealthy industrial countries, we (the United States) have the most inequality," he added.

Levin offered a bit of advice for those who might be feeling stressed.

"I would sum it up in the words that Sanjay uses in the documentary: If you want to take care of yourself, you need to take care of others. It sounds simple but there's tremendous scientific and medical research that proves that is a truth."

For full interview click here.