U.S. Life Expectancy Falls as Drug Overdoses, Suicides Rise
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U.S. Life Expectancy Falls as Drug Overdoses, Suicides Rise


WASHINGTON, DC – November 29, 2018

Life expectancy continued to decline in the United States in 2017, accumulating a historical deterioration in recent years, mainly due to the crisis caused by drug overdoses and an unrelenting rise in suicides, according to health statistics published on Thursday.

Three CDC reports released Thursday paint an increasingly grim picture of mortality in the US, with life expectancy dropping, overall death rates increasing, and mortality from drug addiction and suicide rising fast among young adults. It was the third year in a row that life expectancy had either fallen or stayed flat — the first three-year stretch since the flu pandemic a century ago.

"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," CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a statement, adding that "we must all work together to reverse this trend and help ensure that all Americans live longer and healthier lives.”

More than 70,000 people died of a drug overdose in 2017, the highest number on record and 9.6% more than the previous year, according to the final mortality data. The highest death rates were among ages 35 and 44, followed closely by ages 25 to 34. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin stayed the same as 2016, while fatalities involving fentanyl and certain other synthetic opioids increased 45%.

Despite the billions of new dollars spent on the struggle with the drug crisis, overdoses have only recently become a major driver of the overall mortality rate because decreases in other causes of death, like heart disease, have leveled off after long-term declines.

"In those previous years, the increase in overdose deaths offset the declines in heart disease, but now those have flattened out so that's no longer the case," said Bob Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2017, life expectancy at birth was 76.1 years for men and 81.1 years for women. The average for the population was 78.6 years, compared to 78.9 in 2014.

That’s three and a half years less than in Canada on the other side of the border and that is also affected by overdoses.

"These statistics alert us and show that we lose many Americans, very soon, from avoidable causes," said Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The scourge of drug overdoses began in the early 2000s and its intensity has increased over the past four years.

In terms of deaths, Anderson compared this situation with the rise of the HIV epidemic but with one difference: that it rapidly declined. The statistician expects overdoses to follow the same path. "We are a developed country, life expectancy must increase, not decrease," he said.

Of the 35 OECD countries, only Iceland has recently seen a decrease in life expectancy, according to figures up to 2016. In the rest of the places, it has risen or stagnated.

Suicides also increased in 2017 in the United States. Roughly 47,173 people, or 14 per 100,000, died by suicide in 2017 — a rate increase of 3.7% in one year and 33% since 1999. The CDC says suicides increased roughly 2% per year, on average, between 2006 and 2017. Suicide rates in rural areas were nearly double those in urban areas, according to the CDC.

“The new data indicate that the tragedy associated with drug overdoses and suicide is far from over and that, in fact, we haven’t begun to turn the corner yet,” said John Auerbach, president and CEO of the Trust for America’s Health, adding that the increases in deaths related to drugs and suicide are “staggering and an indication that much more is needed.”

There are two categories of overdose. On the one hand, non-opioid drugs, such as cocaine and methamphetamine and on the other psychostimulants that have killed approximately 27,000 people.

But the increase is largely due to the second category: opiates.

This includes heroin, morphine and so-called semisynthetic opiates, such as oxycodone, a prescription painkiller sold on the black market with the help of complicit doctors and laboratories who claim to ignore the problem, and who are usually the gateway to addiction.

Lately, most deaths come from a new generation of drugs: synthetic opiates, such as fentanyl, dozens of times more potent than heroin, with which the slightest dose error can be fatal.

It killed the singer Prince, and it was used for the execution of a convict in August in Nebraska.

The death rate from synthetic opiates doubled from 2015 to 2016. Last year, it increased by 45%.

But the 2017 figures revealed a detail that gives a relative hope: The number of overdoses continues to grow, but at a slower pace.

Preliminary data for 2018 even suggests that the crisis peaked earlier this year. "But it's hard to say", because there is only data of a few months for now, said a cautious Robert Anderson.

In Staten Island, New York, Dr. Harshal Kirane, director of the addictions service, avoids jumping to conclusions. "It is encouraging to see that the trajectory is curved, without a doubt," he told AFP. "But 70,000 dead, it is still difficult to digest."

Not every state is equally affected by this plague. The states of the center, from Texas to South Dakota, are relatively safe.

The crisis is acute in New England, in the northeast corner, where overdose deaths provide more than a quarter of organ donations, rivaling traffic accidents.

It is also very strong in two states of the old industrial belt (Ohio and Pennsylvania) and especially in the very poor West Virginia, which is at the front with the sad figure of 58 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to a national average of 22.

Overall death rates climbed 0.4% between 2016 and 2017 — with 731 deaths per 100,000 people recorded last year. Heart disease, cancer and unintentional injuries (including accidental drug overdose) remained the leading causes of death in the US, followed closely by suicide, which was the second-leading cause of death for ages 10 to 34.

Deaths from influenza and pneumonia increased the most in 2017, in the wake of a deadly flu season. Unintentional injuries had the next greatest year over year increase, likely due to the opioid crisis. Mortality from suicide, diabetes and Alzheimer’s also rose significantly.


Author: USA Really