America’s declining life expectancy

America’s declining life expectancy

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The year draws to a close for Americans with the news that for the first time in nearly 60 years, their average lifespan has decreased for two years in a row. Life expectancy in America as of 2016 is 78.6 years, down 0.1 years from 2015, according to a report by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this month. The decline is widely interpreted as a potential reversal of the achievements over half a century. The decline is due to what demographers call an alarming drop in male life expectancy at birth that fell from 76.3 in 2015 to 76.1 in 2016. For females, life expectancy remained the same at 81.1. What is even more alarming is the fact that young people died at higher rates than old people, whose life span expanded last year. In age groups between 15 to 44, death rates recorded dramatic spikes between 2015 and 2016. For age groups above 65, a noticeable drop in death rates was recorded.

The CDC report does not make any conclusion on the reasons for the trend, but a widely held assumption is that it is due to the increase in opioid addiction and overdose-related deaths. In the report, the 10 biggest causes of deaths — heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, infuenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide — remained the same as in 2015, but two causes exchanged ranks. Unintentional injuries, the fourth leading cause in 2015, became the third leading cause in 2016, while chronic lower respiratory diseases, the third leading cause in 2015, became the fourth. Drug overdose comes in the category of “unintentional injuries”.

According to a separate CDC study this month, a total of 63,000 people died from drug overdose in 2016, up 21% from 2015. Opioid-related overdoses surged 28%, killing 42,249 people, mostly in the 25-54 age group, taking a daily toll of 115. More people are dying in America from overdose today than during the peak of AIDS-related deaths. From 2000 to 2015, more than half a million people died from drug overdose. Prescription opioids — given by doctors for pain relief — are a driving factor in the 15-year increase in opioid overdose deaths. The amount of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals, and doctors’ offices nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010 but there is no significant reduction in amount of pain that Americans reported, according to the CDC.

Public health emergency

While the death rates of racial minorities are disproportionately higher than their white counterparts, the opioid crisis has hit the white population, too. In October, President Donald Trump declared opioid abuse a public health emergency, but stopped short of declaring it “a national emergency” that would have opened allocation of federal funding to address the issue. In the absence of federal funding for new non-addicting drugs and expansive rehabilitation measures for those already addicted, any lasting solution for the crisis is a long distance away.


While most commentaries on the decline in life expectancy have focussed on the opioid crisis, some have called for a broader look. As health care costs are shooting up, more Americans are unable to afford it. According to a Gallup poll earlier this year, among U.S. adults of both genders, about three in 10 report that they or a household member put off treatment because of cost in the past year.

If opioid deaths are indeed driving life expectancy down, 2017 could turn out to be worse, as available numbers indicate.


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