U.S Life Expectancy Continues to Decline and Here’s Why

Photo: Dana Davenport

Life expectancy in the U.S. dropped for the second year in a row, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The new average life expectancy for Americans is 78.7 years. This is about 1.5 years lower than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average life expectancy of 80.3. The OECD is a group of developed countries that include Canada, Germany, Mexico, France, Japan, and the U.K.

The CDC has noted the three things that have contributed to our shrinking life expectancy include drug overdoses, chronic liver disease, and suicide. “Increased death rates for unintentional drug overdoses in particular—a subset of unintentional injuries—contributed to the negative change in life expectancy observed in recent years,” the report reads.

The Devil is in the Data

According to a series of government reports released Thursday, 70,237 people died of drug overdoses in 2017 — an increase from the 63,632 overdose deaths the U.S. saw in 2016. According to government estimates, those deaths, often called “deaths of despair,” helped push the U.S. life expectancy to 78.6 years, a decrease of one-tenth of a year from 2016 and a whopping three-tenths of a year since 2014.

Mortality rates worsened most for middle-aged black men, and white men and women. The country is now in the longest period of declining life expectancy since 1918, when World War I and a devastating flu pandemic drove life expectancy to 39 years old, according to ABC News.

Overdose deaths from illicit, synthetic opioids rose 45 percent in 2017, according to data released by the CDC, while deaths from heroin and prescription opioid painkillers flattened. Still, drug overdoses were at a record high in 2017, emphasizing a nationwide opioid epidemic that’s now been underway for several years. West Virginia and Ohio, two of the hardest-hit states, continued to lead the nation in drug overdose deaths.

Drug Overdose & Suicide

Overall, drug overdose deaths increased by 9.6 percent in 2017, particularly among adults between the ages of 25 and 54. The slower rise in drug overdoses, despite still reaching a record high, might be promising for the country, which saw a 21 percent rise in drug overdose deaths between 2015 and 2016.

The country’s suicide rate increased to 14 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 at a rate of 13.5 in 2016. Suicide deaths have been increasing nationwide since at least 1999, and are the highest they’ve been in at least half a century.

In particular, suicide deaths have been rising in Western, rural states such as Montana, Idaho, North and South Dakota, and Wyoming, especially among agricultural communities. On the East Coast, Vermont, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have also seen a precipitous rise, according to government data.

Tackling the various problems that contribute to the recent upticks in suicide, liver disease, and drug overdoses won’t be easy. They’re multifaceted issues—often complicated by economics—that we’ve only just begun to parse. But if we want Americans to lead long and healthy lives, it looks like we’re going to have to change what we’re doing. If these charts tell us anything, it’s that our current methods aren’t working.

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