Twenty years ago, as the 21st century dawned, I made a bold prediction. By the year 2100, people could be living to age 150 or more.

Well ... it doesn’t look good, so far, does it? 

I had a lot of reasons for optimism back then. At the start of the 20th century, life expectancy in the United States was 47 years. By 2000, it had reached 76.9 years. With all the advancements underway in medicine, and with genetic scientists working hard on unlocking ways to increase longevity, why shouldn’t we have expected an even larger increase over the next 100 years?

I wasn’t completely out on a limb. Some experts back then were predicting 150 to 200 year lifespans. 

If we’re going to make it, we had better shift course.

The frustrating news this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was that the United States, already ranked a dismal 46th in the world in terms of life expectancy (according to worldometers.info), took a big step backward. It fell by a year and a half overall in 2020. For Black and Hispanic Americans, the news was considerably worse. Their projected lifespans fell by three years. 

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An American born in 2020 is expected to live until 77 years, 4 months. That’s still a teeny bit longer than a kid born in 2000, but it’s less than someone born in 2019. 

You don’t have to be a scientist to figure out the reason. COVID-19 led the way to the 3.3 million overall deaths in 2020, which was a record. The pandemic accounted for about 11% of them. All told, health officials said the coronavirus is to blame for about 74% of the decrease in life expectancy.

This is, of course, a temporary blip on the 21st century. More than 100 years ago, the double whammy of World War I and the Spanish Influenza pandemic brought the male life expectancy from 52.5 years in 1915 to 36.6 in 1918. But the nation made up the difference fairly quickly.

Today, I’m wondering if we have what it takes to bounce back as fast. 

Unlike 100 years ago, we have a way to prevent further infections by today’s pandemic. And yet, new COVID-19 cases are on the rise everywhere. In Utah on Wednesday, the daily increase was 873, with four more deaths. Officials say 85% of those were made sick by the new delta variant of the virus, something any of several vaccinations protect against in most cases.

And yet, the CDC reports only 48.4% of Americans have become fully vaccinated. In Utah, the estimate is 44%.

Vaccines are safe, free and effective, yet the number of daily doses administered has slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, in Utah and many other places, political leaders are in no mood to reimpose mask mandates or to once again close sporting events or public venues. 

So, other than some sternly worded official declarations urging people to get vaccinated, we do nothing — nothing, that is, except hope this collective carelessness doesn’t allow the virus, free to infect so many hosts, to mutate into something the vaccines can’t prevent.

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The scientists I alluded to 20 years ago still are at work. One recent study concluded that, absent a serious disease or accident, the natural aging process gives the human body an outer limit of about 120 to 150 years of life. 

But that isn’t going to be the last word. Peter Fedichev, a co-author of the study, told Scientific American, “Measuring something is the first step before producing an intervention.” 

That kind of optimism has me thinking the nation might recover from its current stumbles and get back on the road to longer and longer lives. But that won’t happen if people insist on valuing short-term pleasure over long-term gains, and if they continue to ignore simple preventative measures in the face of a serious threat.