Ah, the callow optimism of youth.

I hope I can be forgiven for the irrational exuberance that led me, at the dawning of the year 2000, to wonder if I, and many of my contemporaries, would be around to see the dawning of the year 2100, even if we had to do so from a rocking chair.

Now that life expectancy seems to have halted along its inexorable climb, I’m willing to admit that may not happen. Making it just halfway through the century would be an accomplishment.

In my defense, I was only 40 at the time. It all seemed so logical and I felt so energetic. As I wrote on Jan. 2, 2000, life expectancy in 1900 had been a mere 47 years. It had risen steadily through the 20th century and now was 76.9

I laughed at a prediction I found from 1900 that said only 75 people then alive would be around to see 2000. The real figure ended up being about 70,000. I quoted experts who said the trend was bound to continue. Life expectancy could reach 150 or 200 by 2100. Many people then alive might be watching the 22nd century dawn on the world, feeling quite fine, I said. Do not underestimate the power of science and biology to cure diseases and regenerate limbs and organs.

Well, now I’m 64 and no longer feeling as peppy and pain-free. And all that optimism about life expectancy is taking a beating.

As is life expectancy, itself. The figure for those born in 2022, which was released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week, is a combined 77.5 years (women, as always, tend to live longer than men). Sure, that’s an improvement over almost 24 years ago, but it was 78.8 in 2019, before the pandemic. Life shortened a bit because of COVID-19. It’s rebounded some, but not to previous levels.

The biggest problem, however, is that people in the United States aren’t living as long as people in other wealthy countries. In Japan, life expectancy is 85.9, according to worldometers.info. In Switzerland, it’s 84.4. In France, it’s 83.3. 

You have to sift through a seemingly endless list of countries where people are expected to live past 80 until you reach the U.S. in 47th place, just ahead of Antigua and Barbuda. Somewhere over the last two decades, we lost our way.

The truth is, no one has a definitive answer for why this has happened.

The New York Times references experts who say this is attributable “in part to gaps in health care access, areas of deep poverty, risky behaviors like gun ownership and unhealthy physical and social conditions in the United States.”

I can buy much of that, although I believe Americans were engaged in gun ownership even in the 20th century, when life expectancy was making all those gains, just as areas of deep poverty have, unfortunately, been an enduring staple, as well.

As for unhealthy conditions, well, the rise in deep fried butter and bacon donuts probably hasn’t helped. 

We can’t afford to ignore the differences between longevity among white people and those of other races, particularly Native Americans and Alaskan Natives, both of which were hit hard during the pandemic. These are important differences that need to be addressed, but they’re not new.

In 2000, I didn’t foresee the public skepticism over vaccinations, especially the opposition to one that could help people survive a pandemic. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that the percentage of Americans who believe children should be vaccinated before attending school had dropped from 82% in 2019 to 70% in 2023.

The Washington Post said its own investigation found that “the greatest erosion in life spans comes from chronic illnesses …”

But Philip Cohen, a sociologist and demographer at the University of Maryland, told The New York Times, “It’s still violence and alcohol and suicide and homicide, accidents and especially opioids.”

I’m not especially sold on any of those explanations. For one thing, I’ve seen the level of alcohol consumption in some of those long-lived European countries. But I don’t have any better answers of my own.

Experts have long correlated wealth with longer lifespans. But the U.S. still ranks first in the world in national net worth. Yes, there are inequities. Too many people don’t have access to quality health care, which continues to cost more each year. Yes, we remain too suspicious of public institutions. We distrust each other too much. And yes, we are the fattest country among the nations that make up The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which also is a consequence of wealth.

Back in 2000, I speculated whether great grandkids would listen to their 150-year-old elders in the future. If they do, if today’s stagnating life expectancies are only a temporary blip, I hope they hear about the persistent optimism that led us to a better life in the 20th century, despite the hiccups of a pandemic, a depression, two world wars and a cold war.

I hope they inherit that belief in better days ahead, and an excitement over new discoveries. Maybe I was too exuberant almost 24 years ago. But the 21st century is still young. I haven’t given up on it, yet.