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Overdoses & Suicides Cut U.S. Life Expectancy, CDC Reports

Life expectancy in the U.S. has ticked downward for the third straight year, according to three new reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall life expectancy averaged 78.6 years in 2017, a decrease of 0.1 from the year before.

The drop represents the longest sustained decline in expected lifespan since 1915 to 1918. Back then, the decrease could be blamed—partially, at least—on World War I and the deadly 1918 influenza pandemic. Today, however, the decrease can be blamed on a rapid increase in the number of deaths from drug overdoses and suicide, according to CDC Director Robert Redfield.

“Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation’s overall health, and these sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” Redfield said.

Last year, more than 70,000 people died of drug overdoses alone, according to the CDC. That number is close to a 10% increase from 2016, and the highest ever in the United States for a single year. By comparison, about 17,000 people died of overdoses in 1999, the earliest year for which the CDC offered data.

Recently, the rise in overdose deaths has been attributed to the opioid epidemic and a spike in deaths involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—a whopping 45% jump in a single year, from 2016 to 2017.

“It’s striking to see that there are more people who died of overdose in 2017 than at the peak of the HIV epidemic or the highest rates of traffic fatalities that we’ve seen in this country,” said Kathryn McHugh of Harvard Medical School.

For this same period, suicide rates have also steadily increased, according to the CDC. Suicide now represents the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and the second most common cause of death for people ages 10 to 34. That age range fits with the CDC’s data on drug use, which showed people age 25 to 54 dying at higher rates than their older counterparts. In other words, younger adults have largely been hit hardest by these trends.

McHugh said the drop in life expectancy is because people are dying in their 20s and 30s, rather than reaching maximum lifespans in their 80s.

For William Dietz of George Washington University, the statistics in the CDC reports are “very disturbing” because deaths from overdoses and suicides are likely linked. He noted that both may be caused by social shifts in the U.S. that have caused people to become “less connected to each other in communities.” He added: “There are some data to suggest that that’s led to a sense of hopelessness, which in turn could lead to an increase in rates of suicide and certainly addictive behaviors.”

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