American Life Expectancy Falling Amid Rise in Overdoses and Suicides

American Life Expectancy Falling Amid Rise in Overdoses and Suicides

After decades of improvement, U.S. life expectancy is on the decline as suicide rate hits 50-year high.

Life expectancy in the United States fell from 2016 to 2017 as overdose deaths among Americans reached a new high and the suicide rate surged, according to a November 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A separate January 2019 report from the National Safety Council (NSC) reveals that for the first time in U.S. history, Americans are more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident, which has long been the leading cause of unintentional death in the United States. The NSC contends the country’s ongoing opioid crisis and abuse of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, is to blame for these grim findings. 

In 2017, life expectancy at birth was 78.6 years—a decrease from 78.7 years in 2016, the CDC revealed. In 2017, there were also more than 2.8 million deaths in the US, the report showed. That’s nearly 70,000 more than the year before.

Growth in America’s aging population partially explains this decline, but health officials note that more deaths among younger adults is driving this unsettling trend.

Between 2016 and 2017, age-specific death rates increased for those age 85 and older and those between 35 and 44, but the most dramatic increase was among even younger adults between 25 and 34. Meanwhile, death rates fell among adults between 45 and 54 years old.

“The latest CDC data show that the U.S. life expectancy has declined over the past few years. Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide,” said CDC Director, Robert R. Redfield, MD, in a news release.

The 10 top causes of death in the US didn’t change between 2016 and 2017. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, the flu and pneumonia are still among the health issues that account for 74 percent of all deaths in the US. While fewer people died from cancer, the CDC report revealed that death rates increased for seven other leading causes of death, including an alarming 4.2 percent surge in death from unintentional injuries (which include drug overdoses) and a 3.7 percent jump in suicides.

The death rate for heart disease—the number one killer of Americans—was largely unchanged and it did not offset increases in other causes of death from 2016 to 2017.

Separate November 2018 reports released by the CDC examined suicide rates and drug overdose statistics specifically. Suicide rates increased 33 percent from 10.5 to 14.0 per every 100,000 people from 1999 to 2017.

Drug overdose deaths also rose 9.6 percent from 2016 to 2017, from 19.8 to 21.7 per every 100,000 people. This increase means Americans are now more likely to die from an overdose than from a car accident when it comes to unintentional, preventable, injuries. The chances of dying from a drug overdose are now 1 in 96, while the chances of dying from a motor vehicle accident are 1 in 103, according to the NSC report, which included data from the National Center for Health Statistics, state departments of health, state traffic authorities and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

“Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the Nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” added Dr. Redfield.

Medically reviewed in January 2019.

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