US Life Expectancy Declines For The Second Year In A Row

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US Life Expectancy Declines For The Second Year In A Row

By Victoria Kim 12/27/17
Data scientists say the drug crisis "appears to be accelerating," and is partly to blame for the decrease in the life expectancy of Americans.
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Illustration of businessman on steps leading to decline

Life expectancy in the United States declined for the second year in a row, according to a report issued last Thursday (Dec 21). This represents a trend that federal officials attribute in part to rising drug overdose deaths.

The decrease in life expectancy—from 78.7 in 2015 to 78.6 in 2016—is alarming, says Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics. “For any individual, that’s not a whole lot,” he told NPR. “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.”  

This downward trend is unusual, and has led Anderson and his colleagues to conclude that the drug crisis “appears to be accelerating.” The last time the life expectancy decreased was in 1993 due to the AIDS crisis, and we haven’t seen a two-year decline since the early sixties, according to NPR.

The role of drug overdose deaths in driving down the life expectancy cannot be ignored. Recent data from the CDC shows that opioids account for the majority of fatal ODs, which hit a new high in 2016. 

More than 63,600 Americans died of a drug overdose last year; and more than 42,200 of them involved opioids. In 2015, the CDC recorded 52,400 fatal ODs with 33,000 of them involving opioids. 

And it’s not just prescription painkillers and heroin that are to blame for the surge in ODs. Deaths from synthetic opioids also increased 3.1 per 100,000 in 2015 to 6.2 per 100,000 in 2016. 

“I’m not prone to dramatic statements. But I think we should be really alarmed. The drug overdose problem is a public health problem, and it needs to be addressed. We need to get a handle on it,” said Anderson.

Some have tried identifying the root of America’s drug crisis, like Princeton University economist Anne Case, who says it is a symptom of a larger problem. “It’s also a crisis in which people are killing themselves in much larger numbers—whites especially,” said Case, according to NPR. “Deaths from alcohol have been rising as well. So we think of it all being signs that something is really wrong and whatever it is that’s really wrong is happening nationwide.”

In a June interview with The Georgia Straight, Dr. Gabor Maté discussed his experience with ayahuasca, the “spirit vine,” saying it is one potential “antidote to western psychological distress and cultural alienation” that affects so many.

The world is growing and changing to a point where it’s becoming hard to keep up. These stresses are taking a toll on the mental health and stability of Americans, Case suggests. “It may be the deaths from drugs, from suicide, from alcohol are related to the fact that people don’t have the stability and a hope for the future that they might have had in the past,” she said.

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