Life expectancy in the United States has dropped for the third year in a row, as suicide and overdose deaths continue to rise, according to a new report released Thursday by the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Health Statistics. The average American life expectancy dipped just slightly from 78.7 years in 2016 to 78.6 in 2017. This may not seem significant on its own, but when taken as part of the three-year trend, we’re in the midst of the longest-lasting decline in life expectancy in the U.S. since World War I.
Deaths from heart disease and cancer, the country’s two leading causes of death, have continued their steady decline, but that drop was outpaced by the increase in suicides and accidental injuries, including drug overdose.
Drug overdose deaths specifically reached a new record high, at 70,237 recorded in 2017. That’s an increase of 9.6 percent over 2016’s numbers. One major culprit in the rise in overdose deaths is synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. Deaths from those drugs jumped by 45 percent from 2016 to 2017.
The silver lining is that while overdose deaths are still climbing, the rate of increase is slowing down, compared to the 21-percent increase between 2015 and 2016. This could mean that harm reduction initiatives, like increasing the awareness and availability of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdose, are starting to work. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Surgeon General both highlight naloxone access as a key to preventing overdose death, and provide information on where to get the drug and receive training on how to administer it to someone in distress.
Eliza J. Wheeler, an overdose response strategist at the Harm Reduction Coalition, agreed in an email to Rolling Stone that the best way to prevent overdose deaths is “focusing on interventions that directly empower people who use drugs with the tools to reverse overdose,” including naloxone, as well as “drug-checking services, safer consumption spaces and access to services like syringe access, opioid agonist treatments, testing and linkage to care for viral hepatitis and HIV, shelter, housing and accessible, voluntary, evidence-based and non-coercive substance-use treatment programs.”
“We also believe in addressing the structural factors driving the increases in drug overdose deaths and impacting the quality of life for persons who use drugs,” she says, “including the War on Drugs and racialized drug policies that disproportionately affect communities of color, people experiencing poverty, and contribute to mass incarceration.”
While organizations like the HRC race against rising numbers of overdose deaths, the rate of suicide deaths rose by 3.7 percent between 2016 and 2017. While most people who die by suicide are men, the rates are increasing faster for women. The instances of female suicide deaths increased by 53 percent between 1999 and 2017, as opposed to a 26 percent increase for males. Even starker than the gender divide in suicides is the difference between urban areas and rural, where rates are nearly twice as high.
Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control advocacy group, points to gun ownership as a major contributing factor in America’s suicide problem, as about half of all suicides in the U.S. are gun suicides. “Access to firearms — meaning personal or household gun ownership — increases the risk of suicide by three times,” they note in a recent report. “Researchers overwhelmingly agree that household firearm ownership rates are strongly associated with rates of firearm and overall suicide, even when controlling for other factors associated with suicide like poverty, unemployment, serious mental illness, and substance abuse. This is why states with high rates of household gun ownership also have high rates of firearm and overall suicide.”
Increased suicide rates, of course, also point to problems with insufficient or inaccessible mental healthcare and other factors for general wellbeing in this country.
Average life expectancy has long been used as an overall measure of a country’s health, with life expectancies steadily rising in most of the world over the last century thanks to technological advancements and breakthroughs in medicine.