40 Ways We're Unhealthier Today Than We Were 40 Years Ago

Sugar-filled diets, sleepless nights, and superbugs aren't doing our health any favors.

In some ways, Americans are very healthy these days. We've been exercising more and our grocery store aisles are lined with more health-conscious options than ever. We're even living longer, with an average life expectancy of 78.6—a five-year increase over the past four decades. However, not everything is looking up for Americans, health-wise. For all the advancements being made in the fields of medicine, nutrition, and fitness, obesity rates are still skyrocketing, cancer rates are rising, and countless lifestyle choices are contributing to our faltering wellbeing. With that in mind, we've rounded up 40 ways we're unhealthier today than we were 40 years ago.

We're drinking more.

men drinking ways we're unhealthy
Nestor Rizhniak / Shutterstock

Americans are drinking alcohol like there's an impending liquor shortage. According to research published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, alcohol use has increased in recent years, and cirrhosis rates are reaching epidemic levels. Back in 1985, just 4.4 people per 100,000 died from alcohol-related cirrhosis, but that number had jumped to 14.85 as of 2018.

We're eating more sugar.

woman eating donut ways we're unhealthy

Excessive sugar consumption is linked to everything from obesity to type 2 diabetes to heart disease. And, unfortunately, Americans are eating more of the sweet stuff than ever before, according to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. From 1977 to 1979, the highest average amount of added sugar adults were consuming was up to 557 calories a day. By 2012, the number had gone all the way up to 708.

The consumption of fructose increased significantly as well, from an average of 37 grams a day in the 1970s to 41.4 grams per day in 2016, according to the Statistics Portal.

We're spending less time outdoors.

liberated and free woman ways we're unhealthy

While school-aged kids spent an average of an hour and 40 minutes engaging in outdoor activities every week from 1981 to 1982, according to the Institute of Social Research, that number was down to 50 minutes by 2003. In fact, the National Recreation and Park Association reveals that kids are spending less time outside today than in any generation that preceded them.

So, what's the problem with our increasingly-indoor lives? A study published in the journal Environmental Research found that spending time outside is linked to lower blood pressure, lower rates of heart disease, and reduced depression.

We're getting less sleep.

Man Lying Awake in Bed Because He Can't Sleep ways we're unhealthy

Feeling tired? You're not alone. According to the CDC, more than one third of Americans aren't getting the recommended seven-plus hours of sleep at night. Based on research published in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, while adults were getting 7.38 hours of sleep a night back in 1980, that number dropped to 6.69 hours by 2013.

We're sitting more.

man sitting down at his desk and working ways we're unhealthy

More than one quarter of American adults spend over eight hours a day sitting down, and 45 percent report being largely inactive, according to a JAMA Network study.

It's also worth noting that research published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings revealed that the number of high-activity jobs have decreased since 1970. Just 20 percent of adults were working high-activity jobs in 2010. Unfortunately, all that sitting is doing no favors for our health. It increases our risk of heart disease, obesity, and early death.

We're developing diabetes more frequently.

woman testing blood ways we're unhealthy

Our increasingly unhealthy habits are catching up to us, especially in terms of our overall rates of diabetes. While just 2.49 percent of the adult population had diagnosed diabetes in 1979, the CDC reports that that number nearly tripled, to 7.4 percent, by 2015.

We're getting less vitamin D.

couple outside in sunlight ways we're unhealthy


Vitamin D deficiency is running rampant in the United States, thanks in no small part to the uptick in hours spent indoors and fewer hours out in the sunlight.

Research published in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that 45 percent of the individuals participating in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey had 30 or more nanograms per milliliter of vitamin D in their blood between 1988 and 1994. By 2004, those levels dropped to 24 nanograms per milliliter. And by 2011, 41.6 percent of American adults had vitamin D deficiency.

We're getting more UV exposure.

woman with mole on back ways we're unhealthy


Unfortunately, while we may be spending less time soaking up vitamin D from the sun, we're getting more UV exposure. According to a report from NASA, the amount of UV radiation reaching the earth's surface has gone up significantly in the past 30 years, which is what causes certain cancers, like melanoma. So it's no surprise that the American Cancer Society reports that melanoma rates have been rising steadily over the same period, too. And to protect yourself, make sure you're aware of these 20 Skin Cancer Symptoms Everyone Needs to Know.

We're dying of overdoses more frequently.

A closeup of flowers atop a funeral casket outdoors

The opioid epidemic has claimed an increasing number of lives over the past 40 years. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered an exponential increase in total drug-related mortality in the United States since 1979. At that time, just over 1 per 100,000 individuals died from drug overdoses. By 2016, that number was nearly 17.

We're using more plastic.

woman drinking water ways we're unhealthy

All those plastic bottles we drink from are doing more than just harming the environment—they're harming us, too. A study conducted by Orb Media revealed that, of the water samples taken across the globe, more than 80 percent had microscopic plastic fibers in them, many of which come from plastic bottles and bags.

Since it wasn't until 1979 that the first plastic bags were introduced in U.S. grocery stores, there wasn't much microplastic pollution in our water 40 years ago.

We weigh more.

woman stepping on scale ways we're unhealthy

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults classify as obese, the CDC reports. Back in 1980, those numbers were less than half of what they are today, according to a study published in The Lancet.

We're spending more time behind the wheel.

Man falling asleep while driving ways we're unhealthy

Today, we're spending more time sitting in our cars than ever—a record 3.2 trillion miles were driven on American roads as of 2016. And unfortunately, we're getting less healthy because of it.

Research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine linked longer sedentary commuting to an overall lack of physical activity, poor cardiorespitory fitness, and increased indicators of metabolic risk.

We're getting asthma more often.

chest pain ways we're unhealthy

In 1980, there were approximately 6.8 million individuals living with asthma in the United States, according to the CDC. Today, more than 25 million Americans are living with the potentially-deadly condition.

We're eating more fast food.

millennial eating burger ways we're unhealthy

Four decades ago, fast food restaurant sales accounted for about 20 percent of the $87 billion Americans spent eating out. By 2016, that number was up to 36.6 percent, which is nearly double.

We're consuming more added fats.

french fries ways we're unhealthy

The increasing amount of fat on our bodies didn't come out of nowhere. Our meals are full of the stuff, too. While the USDA reported that Americans consumed just over 50 pounds of added fats in 1970, that number was close to 80 pounds by 201o.

We're getting colon cancer more often—and younger.

colon cancer ribbon ways we're unhealthy

Thanks largely to diet and increasingly sedentary lifestyles, colorectal cancer among young people is on the rise throughout the U.S. According to the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, there has been a 2.4 percent uptick in colon cancer and a 3.2 percent increase in rectal cancer among adults aged 20 to 29 from 1974 to 2013.

We're eating fewer vegetables.

Washing fruits and vegetables ways we're unhealthy

It looks like Michael Pollen's popular adage, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants," has been lost on Americans. Data from the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans are consuming fewer calories from vegetables each day than they were in 1970.

We're eating more red meat than ever.

Woman Eating Steak ways we're unhealthy

Even though there are more commercially-available vegan and vegetarian foods than ever before, Americans are consuming more red meat than ever. And that's not a great sign, considering the food group increases the risk of heart disease and colorectal cancer, among other ailments.

In 2018, Americans ate a record amount of red meat, according to the USDA. The domestic meat industry produced over 100 billion pounds of the stuff last year, which is an access to 222.4 pounds of meat per capita.

We're drinking more coffee.

man drinking espresso outside ways we're unhealthy

According to research from the National Coffee Association, Americans are drinking more coffee than ever, with 64 percent of adults polled admitting to indulging in at least one cup in the past 24 hours. By comparison, an archival New York Times article found that just 56 percent of Americans drank coffee back in 1981.

And while an occasional cup may be fine for some folks, too much coffee can contribute to sleeplessness, heart arrhythmia, irritability, and increased blood pressure.

We're spending more time watching screens.

older woman on computer ways we're unhealthy

While Americans typically watched six hours and 36 minutes of TV per household back in 1979, according to trusted Nielsen data, we spend an average of 11 hours and six minutes interacting with media via phones, tablets, TVs, and computers today. Our ability to take our entertainment anywhere may seem convenient. But it's also caused some health issues, including vision problems, weight gain, and anxiety.

We're eating more takeout.

chinese takeout box ways we're unhealthy

In 2017, Americans spent an average of $7,700 on food, with $3,400 of that total going toward takeout, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, between 1972 and 1973, families spent just $400 of their annual $1,595 food budget on takeout.

And considering that research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine links home-cooked meals to greater adherence to dietary guidelines, it stands to reason our obsession with takeout is making us less healthy.

We're dealing with Alzheimer's more frequently.

Older Man on the Bed ways we're unhealthy

The annual death rate from Alzheimer's disease was just 0.4 per 100,00 individuals as of 1979, according to the CDC. And despite advances in screening methods, today, 5.8 million Americans have Alzheimer's.

We're in poor health overall.

depressed woman ways we're unhealthy

Our myriad health issues are taking their toll on our overall wellbeing. While just 11.9 percent of adults identified themselves as being in poor health in 1979, 21 percent said the same as of 2017.

We're consuming more cheese than ever.

cheese plate ways we're unhealthy

While Americans consumed an average of 15.23 pounds of cheese per capita in 1979, by 2015, the average American was consuming more than 34 pounds of the stuff. And though we wish it wasn't the case, snacking on too much cheese isn't going to keep your heart and body healthy.

We're spending more time alone.

woman sad alone on couch ways we're unhealthy

According to a survey conducted by serviced office company IWG, 70 percent of working adults telecommuted at least once a week. Prior to the proliferation of the personal home computer, such a luxury didn't even exist decades ago. And while there are countless benefits to remote work, there are downsides, too: namely increased loneliness, which is linked to everything from depression to early death.

We have new sources of stress.

man squeezing stress ball ways we're unhealthy

There were just two widely-reported mass shootings in the United States in 1979, but that number was up to 323 by 2018. According to the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America report, mass shootings are a major source of stress for 75 percent of the members of Gen Z polled.

We're getting carpal tunnel more often.

Woman with cast on wrist ways we're unhealthy

If you find your hand and wrist aching after a long day of typing on your computer, you're far from alone. One study published in Neurology reveals that the incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome rose from 258 per 100,000 people in the early 1980s to 424 in the early 2000s. And considering the significant increase in smartphone use since 2005, younger individuals are developing the condition more often, as well.

We're working longer hours.

Man is Sitting by His Computer Bored at Work ways we're unhealthy

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, Americans worked 11 hours more each week in 2006 than they had in 1979. And more hours behind a desk means more time sitting and a greater risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and early death.

We're getting tech neck.

man with neck pain ways we're unhealthy

Four decades ago, the number of individuals with cellphones was a big, fat zero. Today, 95 percent of Americans own one—and we've got the neck pain to prove it.

Tech neck, a spinal condition that occurs because of the position we assume to gaze into our phones, is becoming an increasingly common problem. According to New York-based chiropractor Nicholas Riccio, DC, a member of New York Chiropractic Group, for every inch our necks move forward to gaze at our devices, we're adding 10 pounds of painful pressure to our spines.

We're vaping.

vape pen e-cigarette ways we're unhealthy

It's not just cigarettes parents have to search their kids' sock drawers for these days. According to figures cited last year by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a staggering 37.3 percent of high school seniors admitted to vaping over the course of the previous 12 months. And while e-cigarettes are frequently billed as healthier alternatives to traditional, combustible cigarettes, new research published in Tobacco Control reveals that vaping may not be so innocent. In fact, vaping was linked to a 170 percent increase in respiratory issues (including wheezing).

We're smoking more weed.

pot dispensary ways we're unhealthier
Shutterstock/Jonathan Weiss

More Americans are smoking pot than ever—45 percent today, versus just under 30 percent 40 years ago. The drug is becoming increasingly popular as a treatment for conditions from anxiety to glaucoma, as well as a legal recreational drug in parts of the U.S.

But smoking it isn't without its risks, particularly when it comes to lung health. Each year of marijuana smoking has been linked to an eight percent increase in lung cancer risk, according to a study published in the European Respiratory Journal.

We're having kids later.

pregnant woman ways we're unhealthy

The age of first-time mothers is on the rise in the U.S., up to 26.3 from 24.9 in 1979. And with more women over 40 are having babies, that increases the likelihood of conditions like Down syndrome, autism, and a number of other birth defects.

We're getting more STDs.

woman at the doctor ways we're unhealthy

Americans are using condoms more frequently than ever before, but our STD rates are still soaring. In fact, according to CDC data, the U.S. rates of syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia in 2017 had surpassed the all-time high set the previous year by 200,000 cases. (There were 2.3 million combined cases diagnosed in total.)

And our STDs are becoming antibiotic resistant.

Antibiotics ways we're unhealthy

Not only are people contracting more STDs, the ones we're getting are becoming harder to treat. While gonorrhea is the most common antibiotic-resistant STD, syphilis and chlamydia are also becoming resistant to treatment—and they increase a person's risk of contracting HIV if exposed, too.

We're taking too many antibiotics in general.

antibiotics ways we're unhealthy

While antibiotics can help fight off some nasty bugs, Americans are being prescribed these medications more often than is actually necessary—and it's making us less healthy along the way. According to the CDC, 47 million unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics were written on an annual basis in recent years, increasing the risk of allergic reactions and superbugs.

We're using too much hand sanitizer.

woman using hand sanitizer ways we're unhealthy
Shutterstock / Elizaveta Galitckaia

Though alcohol has long been used as a means of killing bacteria, it's only since the 1980s that alcohol-based hand sanitizer has become a staple in every hospital and school. Unfortunately, there is too much of a good thing when it comes to killing bacteria—the overuse of hand sanitizer has led to an increase in resistant bacteria.

We're more likely to skip vaccines.

Kid at the Doctor's Office Getting a Smallpox Vaccine ways we're unhealthy

The last year an indigenous case of polio occurred in the United States was in 1979. However, with vaccine refusal on the rise in certain parts of the United States, polio could be making a comeback. In Washington state, for instance, the polio vaccine rate was just 88.4 percent in 2015—lower than necessary to maintain herd immunity—down from 95.4 percent in 1998.

We're getting Powassan virus more often.

deer tick ways we're unhealthy

Lyme disease isn't the only affliction you can get from a tick bite these days. Powassan virus—a tick-borne disease with a death rate of approximately 10 percent—was first identified in 1958. But the disease's spread has increased over the past few decades: 75 cases were diagnosed between 2007 and 2017.

We're skipping breakfast more often.

woman who's not hungry ways we're unhealthy

In 1983, approximately 11.7 million Americans were skipping breakfast on a regular basis—which was five percent of the total population. A new survey suggests that number is closer to 50 percent today. Considering that skipping breakfast is associated with increased obesity rates, passing up that morning meal is only making us hungrier and less healthy in the long run.

We're consuming more GMOs.

heirloom tomatoes are a fancy foodie term

Though genetically-modified foods haven't been proven to cause cancer, the health risks of ingesting these items is still largely unknown—and there is potential danger in that uncertainty.

"There is no proof at this time that the genetically modified foods that are now on the market are harmful to human health or that they would either increase or decrease cancer risk," the American Cancer Society notes. "But the lack of proof of harm is not the same as proof of safety, and because these foods have been around for a fairly short time, the possible long-term health effects are not known." And if you want to live a longer, healthier life, start with these 100 Ways to Live to 100.

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Sarah Crow
Sarah Crow is a senior editor at Eat This, Not That!, where she focuses on celebrity news and health coverage. Read more
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