(CN) – Increasing violence in Mexico has stunted gains made in life expectancy for Mexican men in the first decade of the 21st century, a study released Thursday by the University of California, Los Angeles, shows.
Hiram Beltrán-Sánchez and Jose Manuel Aburto co-wrote the study and found not only have gains in life expectancy – the average years a person is expected to live – slowed for Mexican males, but life span inequality – or variability of age at death – had a much smaller decrease and, in a handful of Mexican states plagued by violence, increased.
Between 1995 and 2005 the life expectancy for Mexican men increased from 57.08 years to 58.25 years. But that progress was stunted between 2005 and 2015, when life expectancy only increased by half a year, from 58.25 years to 58.8 years, according to the study.
The reason: homicides of men between ages 15 to 49 had the largest effect in slowing down male life expectancy, with men in Mexico living less on average and experiencing higher uncertainty in their eventual death.
“Despite recent efforts from the Mexican government to contain the upsurge of violence in the country data up to 2015 show that life circumstances among young adults have not improved and are actually deteriorating. Almost every state experienced a reduction in male life expectancy at age 15 across all regions in Mexico due to homicides,” according to the study.
“These detrimental consequences offset increases in life expectancy due to ongoing public health interventions, such as the enactment of a universal health insurance program.”
Beltrán-Sánchez said in an interview it is very rare for homicides to compete with health problems such as cancer or diabetes as a top cause of death. But for men in Mexico, homicide is among the top five causes of death.
It’s why the public health professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health suggests homicides in Mexico need to be treated as a public health problem, rather than as a national security issue – the approach officials have taken through increased military operations and police enforcement since violence started rising around 2006.
“We need to shift the focus. One of the first steps in public health to assess a problem is to diagnose it. In the case of homicides, little information is out there,” Beltrán-Sánchez said.
He said there is little researchers can do to more clearly diagnose the problem, such as if homicides could be related to a lack of economic opportunities and jobs or education because the social factors which contribute to homicides are not recorded on death certificates.
The study found the surge in homicides – which doubled between 2007 and 2012 – wiped out gains made in life expectancy due to better management of health conditions such as infections, respiratory diseases and birth conditions in all 32 Mexican states.
In the Mexican state of Guerrero, for example, life expectancy for Mexican males dropped by two years between 2005 and 2015, while Chihuahua and Sinaloa saw life expectancy losses of one year each. All three states have been plagued with violence related to the drug trade.
In 2010 and 2011, 8,943 men between the ages of 15 and 50 were murdered in Chihuahua – three times the number U.S. troops killed in Iraq from 2003 to 2006, according to the study.
For those exposed to homicide violence, the study authors point out social determinants to health not included in the study such as an increased risk of depression, alcohol abuse, suicidal behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and psychological problems.
But Beltrán-Sánchez said Colombia – once plagued by drug-fueled violence and homicides – implemented a program in the 1990s aimed at curbing violence by studying it through the lens of public health. He said the same approach should be taken in Mexico, since a lack of information collected on homicides does not allow researchers to connect the violence directly to the war on drugs.
“There is a clear correlation between drug cartel activities and homicides, but the data doesn’t allow us to go into details to see if that is the case,” Beltrán-Sánchez said.
He also said a lack of information collected on homicides means researchers have not been able to study if the homicide rate in Mexico contributes to immigration to the United States, though he said some nongovernmental organizations have collected data related to immigration and violence.
Because homicides are underreported, Beltrán-Sánchez emphasized the results of the study estimate the least possible impact of homicides on the life expectancy and life span inequality for Mexican men. He noted the scores of missing people in Mexico who were likely killed, and said if those people were included in the data set the impact of homicides on life expectancy would likely be even greater.