Spike in opioid overdoses causes drop in life expectancy

Lydia Fleming
December 25, 2017

A baby born last year in the U.S.is expected to live about 78 years and 7 months, on average, the CDC said.

"That's not a whole lot, but when you're talking about it in terms of a population, you're talking about a significant number of potential lives that aren't being lived", Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the NCHS, said.

Suicide in the US rose in 2016 and gun deaths also increased for a second year.

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The NCHS found that 63,600 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, and "the majority of these overdose deaths were unintentional", the NCHS team, led by Dr. Holly Hedegaard, wrote. Many of these deaths were seen at the intersection of the Midwest and Northeast, with West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, and New Hampshire being the areas with the highest overdose death rates.

"The escalating growth of opioid deaths is downright frightening - and it's getting worse", said John Auerbach, president and CEO of Trust for America's Health. In 2015, 33,000 died from opioid overdoses. That rate rose to 19.8 per 100,000 in 2016. OH and New Hampshire were next, both at about 39 per 100,000. "But I think we should be really alarmed". At the same time, mortality from drug overdoses rose by 21 percent. "We need to get a handle on it".

In the past few years, however, cardiovascular deaths have flattened while overdose deaths have gone up, allowing the deaths of younger Americans to impact overall life expectancy, he said. Japan's average life expectancy, among the highest in the world, was 84.06 years in 2016, up 0.26 year from 2015. All these factors combined caused American life expectancy to fall from 78.7 to 78.6, breaking down gender specifically to 81.1 for women and 76.1 for men. Moreover, it's the first time since 1963 that life expectancy has decreased in two consecutive years. An American born in 2016 can expect to live to 78.6, compared to 78.7 in 2015 and 78.8 in 2014, according to federal data released Thursday.

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Life expectancy "gives you sort of an overall sense of what's going on", Anderson told NPR, and when the figure declines, it's a clear signal of nation with a problem. The leading causes of death were the same; congenital malformation, low birth weight, sudden infant death syndrome, maternal complications and unintentional injuries lead the list. The last time United States life expectancy dropped for even one year was in 1993, and that was largely due to the AIDS epidemic. At this point, there are almost 100 opioid-related deaths in the United States each day, and the epidemic "appears to be accelerating", Anderson told NPR. Opioids are the main reason for this dip.

"It's also a crisis in which people are killing themselves in much larger numbers - whites especially", Anne Case, an economist at Princeton University, said.

For those concerned about dementia-related ailments like Alzheimer's - which the CDC notes is on the rise with a death rate of 25.4 people per 100,000 - things have turned even bleaker, as a recent study by The Annals of Internal Medicine found that little can be done to prevent dementia. "So we think of it all being signs that something is really wrong and whatever is it is that's really wrong is happening nationwide".

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