Life Expectancy Fell in the United States Again, Mostly Because of Drug Overdoses

Spanish flu, HIV/AIDS, drug overdoses: Epidemics that affect the young often show up dramatically in the data.
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Spanish flu, HIV/AIDS, drug overdoses: Epidemics that affect the young often show up dramatically in the data.

Life expectancy in the United States has dropped for a second year in a row, due mostly to drug overdoses in young, working-age Americans, according to a federal count.

In 2016, the latest available data, the life expectancy for Americans was 78.6 years. That's down from 78.7 years in 2015 and 78.9 years in 2014. "It doesn't seem like a big deal because you're only talking about a tenth of a year—or three-tenths of a year over two years—but given the way life expectancy's calculated, a tenth of a year actually represents a lot of lives cut short," says Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the National Center for Health Statistics. (There likely also remains a gap in the life expectancies of black and white Americans. Anderson's team doesn't have those numbers yet because they're statistically more complicated to calculate, but while the white-black health gap has narrowed over the last century, it's still in been significant in recent years past.)

And it's mostly young lives. In fact, death rates among Americans aged 65 and older improved between 2015 and 2016, but they worsened significantly among younger age groups. For example, deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds increased by about 8 percent in 2016, and deaths among 25- to 34-year-olds went up by more than 10 percent. More than 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year, with the highest rates among people aged 25 to 54.

Last year was the second in a row that the United States' life expectancy has fallen, which is a sign of a sustained crisis. Since the mid-1950s, Americans' life expectancy—which was only 48 in 1900 (and just 33 for black Americans)—has generally risen year after year. The last time life expectancy fell in the U.S. was in 1993, due the spread and deadliness of HIV/AIDS. The last time life expectancy fell dramatically was a century ago, during the Spanish flu epidemic. Both of those crises, like drug overdoses, hit young adults hard. "It says we've got some problems," Anderson says.

Among those who died of overdoses, the most common drugs that coroners found in their bodies were different kinds of opioids: fentanyl and fentanyl-like drugs, heroin, and oxycodone and hydrocodone. That doesn't necessarily mean folks died because of those particular drugs—people often mix drugs, so perhaps something else caused the fatal overdose, or it was the combination of chemicals. But it's certainly possible to overdose on opioids, especially fentanyl.

Of course, overdoses aren't the only reason for Americans' falling life expectancy, although Anderson called them "the key factor." Progress against deaths from heart disease also seems to have slowed recently. Heart disease and cancer remain, by far, the most common killers of Americans. What the National Center for Health Statistics calls "unintentional injuries"—which include unintentional drug overdoses as well as other accidental poisonings, car accidents, and falls—come in third.