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U.S. life expectancy is in an alarming decline. Here's why.

"Deaths of despair" are driving the longest period of declining life expectancy for Americans in 100 years

by Emma Ockerman
Nov 29 2018, 3:24pm

Suicide and drug overdose deaths drove another alarming year of decline in Americans’ life expectancy.

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 and setting another record high — while the nation’s suicide rate increased by 3.7 percent. 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.

Life expectancy is often used as a measure for a country’s overall health and economic status. In Canada, for example, life expectancy is 79.8 years. The rates are even higher in Japan, Norway and Australia, according to data kept by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That’s because advances in science and health technology have allowed nations, including the U.S., to slowly chip away at rates of leading killers like cancer and heart disease, which declined and leveled off, respectively, in 2017. Yet those breakthroughs are being offset by preventable deaths relating to addiction and mental illness.

“Without those declines, we’d see a much bigger drop in life expectancy,” Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality-statistics branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, told the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s what’s leading Americans to die younger:

Drug overdoses

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.

Overall, drug overdose deaths increased by 9.6 percent in 2017, particularly among adults between the ages 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.

Provisional government data for the first four months of 2018, too, shows a slight leveling off of drug overdose deaths.

More than a year ago, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency, but has since been criticized in his administration’s slow response to the overdose crisis. Although Congress recently passed a bevy of bipartisan bills to expand access to addiction treatment and stem the flow of illicit drugs coming into the country, advocates have pressed that there’s still not enough money being put into mental health and addiction treatment.

Suicide rates

The country’s suicide rate increased to 14 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 from 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.

"Those of us who work with farmers on a daily basis know that mental and behavioral health is a major concern in farming communities," Carlotta McCleary, executive director of Mental Health America of North Dakota, told the Dickinson Press about the CDC data. "Over the past couple years, as family farmers' and ranchers' typical stresses have been compounded by the state of the farm economy, the issue has come to the forefront. All available research backs these concerns and reinforces the need to improve access to mental health services in rural areas."

In a June report, the CDC noted that suicide prevention should center around addressing mental health treatment and the economic or life circumstances that might increase the risk of suicide, since about half of such deaths do not involve a known mental health condition. Additionally, about half of suicide deaths involve a firearm.

Cover image: In this Oct. 22, 2018 file photo, a fentanyl user holds a needle near Kensington and Cambria in Philadelphia. (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP, File)