Overdoses, suicides influence a drop in average US life expectancy

November 30, 2018 GMT

HUNTINGTON - The Appalachia region, with West Virginia leading the pack, had higher-than-average overdose death rates in 2017, while nationwide the rate of those overdose deaths combined with more suicides has shortened the life expectancy of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With a rate of 57.8 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 people, West Virginia once again had the highest overdose death rate in the country, followed by Ohio with 46.3 per 100,000 and Pennsylvania with 44.3 per 100,000.

Rates of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. continued to increase. In 2017, the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths (21.7 per 100,000) was 3.6 times the rate in 1999 (6.1).


Rates increased both for men (from 8.2 in 1999 to 29.1 in 2017) and women (from 3.9 in 1999 to 14.4 in 2017). Rates also increased for all age groups studied. In 2017, among people age 15 and older, rates were highest for adults age 25-34 and 35-44 at 38.4 and 39.0 per 100,000, respectively.

In 2017, 20 states, including West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, and the District of Columbia had age-adjusted drug overdose death rates that were statistically higher than the national rate.

The pattern of drugs involved in overdose deaths has changed in recent years. The rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs and tramadol) increased 45 percent, from 6.2 per 100,000 in 2016 to 9.0 in 2017. The rates of drug overdose deaths involving heroin (4.9 per 100,000), natural and semi-synthetic opioids (4.4) and methadone (1.0) were the same in 2016 and 2017.

Overall, there were more than 2.8 million U.S. deaths in 2017, or nearly 70,000 more than the previous year, the CDC said Thursday. It was the most deaths in a single year since the government began counting more than a century ago.

The increase partly reflects the nation’s growing and aging population. But deaths in younger age groups - particularly middle-aged people - have had the largest impact on calculations of life expectancy, experts said.

“These sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director, said in a statement.

The suicide death rate last year was the highest it’s been in at least 50 years, according to U.S. government records. There were more than 47,000 suicides, up from a little under 45,000 the year before.


For decades, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing, rising a few months nearly every year. Now it’s trending the other way: It fell in 2015, stayed level in 2016, and declined again last year, the CDC said.

The nation is in the longest period of a generally declining life expectancy since the late 1910s, when World War I and the worst flu pandemic in modern history combined to kill nearly 1 million Americans. Life expectancy in 1918 was 39.

Aside from that, “We’ve never really seen anything like this,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees CDC death statistics.

In the nation’s 10 leading causes of death, only the cancer death rate fell in 2017. Meanwhile, there were increases in seven others - suicide, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, flu/pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases and unintentional injuries.

An underlying factor is that the death rate for heart disease - the nation’s No. 1 killer - has stopped falling. In years past, declines in heart disease deaths were enough to offset increases in some other kinds of death, but no longer, Anderson said.

CDC officials did not speculate about what’s behind declining life expectancy, but Dr. William Dietz, a disease prevention expert at George Washington University, sees a sense of hopelessness.

Financial struggles, a widening income gap and divisive politics are all casting a pall over many Americans, he suggested.

“I really do believe that people are increasingly hopeless, and that that leads to drug use, it leads potentially to suicide,” he said.

A baby born last year in the U.S. is expected to live, on average, about 78 years and 7 months. An American born in 2015 or 2016 was expected to live about a month longer, and one born in 2014 about two months longer than that.