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Drug Overdoses Are Depressing the Entire Country's Life Expectancy

The U.S. has gotten better at saving people with heart disease, cancer, and strokes, but early drug overdose, Alzheimer's, and suicide deaths are increasing.
A firefighter treats a women suspected of overdosing on heroin on July 14th, 2017, in Rockford, Illinois.

A firefighter treats a women suspected of overdosing on heroin on July 14th, 2017, in Rockford, Illinois.

The drug overdose problem has become so severe in the United States, it's now bringing down the country's average life expectancy, according to a new analysis.

For more than two decades, Americans' life expectancy had only gone up every year. But while analyzing the data for 2015, scientist Deborah Dowell and her team saw a drop. "It really got our attention," says Dowell, the senior medical advisor for the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Upon deeper digging, the researchers found the culprit: drug overdoses, most them overdoses on opioids such as prescription painkillers, heroin, and fentanyl. The last time the U.S. saw a drop in life expectancy was in 1993, at the height of HIV/AIDS's spread and deadliness. They published their results today in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Overall, Americans' life expectancy fell by two years between 2000 and 2015, Dowell and her team found. Drug overdoses accounted for a little more than three months of that drop. A few months may not seem significant, but, Dowell says, "That's really an unusual finding for a high-income country like the United States."

In 2015, America's life expectancy was about 79 years. Thirty countries had better numbers that year, according to the World Health Organization. An average life expectancy is an important measure of how healthy is a country is overall.

Dowell's data also shows that, compared to 2000, more Americans in 2015 died early from Alzheimer's disease, suicide, and liver disease. Together, these worsening conditions have blunted the progress the U.S. has made over the last 15 years in the prevention and treatment of heart disease, cancer, and stroke.

Overdoses can take an especially heavy toll on countries' life expectancy because, although they affect a far smaller percentage of people than conditions such as heart disease and cancer, they take decades off people's lives. The U.S. has also recently experienced a remarkable uptick in the number of people who die of overdoses. In 2000, overdoses killed about 17,000 Americans. By 2015, they took more than 52,000.