While it's tempting to fall in with those preaching civilizational decline and the dearth of progress these days, when you look at the hard numbers in a number of areas it's difficult to deny that things are indeed getting better.
A couple of recent cases in point are this presentation highlighted on The Enterprise Blog and this editorial in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:
These have been a gloomy couple of years for Americans amid recession and tepid recovery, so it's worth celebrating good news when we find it. Last week it arrived in a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing progress on health and well-being across American society.
Start with the fact that life expectancy in the U.S. rose again to 78.2 years in 2009, from 78 a year earlier. Life expectancy is one of the best measures of socio-economic progress because it captures improvements in living standards, health care, safety, nutrition and environmental protection, among other things. We have added an extra decade to American life spans since 1950, and three decades over the last century. As important, the CDC statistics indicate that Americans are living healthier and more active lives at every age.
Infant mortality rates hit an all-time low of 6.42 per 1,000 live births, as did death rates for children under the age of five. This means that the devastation of losing a child to early death is rarer now than at any time in history. In the last year the death rate fell an impressive 4.2% for those under the age of one, 7.7% for those between ages one and four, and 6.7% for those 15-24. As recently as 1950 a child was nearly four times more likely to die before the age of five than he is today.
The overall age-adjusted death rate (the probability of dying at any particular age) fell to 741 from 759 per 100,000—again in a single year, and the 10th consecutive year the death rate has fallen. What an irony that all of this progress took place over a decade when we were told that lack of health insurance was dooming millions to inadequate care. It turns out that advances in medical treatment matter far more to overall health progress than do insurance coverage rates.
This report should also give pause to those who question the quality of U.S. medical care regarding disease prevention and treatment. According to the CDC, the "age-adjusted death rate decreased significantly for 10 of the 15 leading causes of death," including heart disease, malignant neoplasm (cancer), various chronic diseases of the liver or respiratory system, influenza and pneumonia. Death rates from accidents and homicide also fell significantly.
The progress against the most feared of all diagnoses—cancer—continues a trend that began in earnest in the early 1990s. Today the five-year U.S. survival rate from cancer is 66%, virtually the highest rate in the world, and up from 50% in 1975, according to the National Cancer Institute. The death rate from heart attacks and stroke is now one-half to one-third the age-adjusted rate of 50 years ago, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, another tribute to the life-saving advances in medical technology, modern drugs and lifestyle education.
Another under-appreciated triumph has been combating the high death rates from AIDS. After a huge spike in the AIDS death rate from 1987-94, CDC reports that the death rate "decreased an average of 33% from 1995 through 1998, and 5.1% per year from 1999-2008." Last year the death rate fell another 9.1%.