January 31, 2020

US life expectancy rises for the first time in 4 years

Daily Briefing

    Average life expectancy for Americans increased slightly in 2018, marking the first increase in life expectancy in four years, according to a new CDC report .

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    Background

    In 2015, U.S. life expectancy dropped for the first time since 1993. After the initial dip in 2015, life expectancy continued to drop for the next three years. In December 2018, CDC published a startling report showing that the number of U.S. residents who died in a given year reached an all-time high in 2017—causing the agency to shorten its estimated life expectancy for those born in 2017. Overall, life expectancy in the United States gradually fell from 78.9 years in 2014 to 78.6 years in 2017.

    The reasons behind the increase in deaths and decrease in life expectancy are varied, but they largely centered around two trends, according to the 2018 report: More U.S. residents were dying by suicide and from opioid-drug related overdoses than ever before.

    Report details

    But the latest report shows U.S. life expectancy ticked back up in 2018. Researchers said the trend was driven in part by the first drop in opioid deaths in 28 years.

    CDC in the new report found that average life expectancy for Americans increased from 78.6 years in 2017 to 78.7 years in 2018. Life expectancy increased for both men and women.

    Heart disease and cancer are still the two leading causes of death for Americans, but 2018 saw death rates for both causes continue to drop. The 10 leading causes of death stayed the same for the third year in a row in 2018.

    CDC also found that drug overdose deaths decreased by 4% in 2018, from 21.7 deaths per 100,000 in 2017 to 20.7 in 2018. However, the United States in 2018 still had the second-highest drug overdose death rate in its history, according to Vox. About one-third of accidental deaths in the United States are drug overdoses.

    Moreover, CDC found increases in death rates related to certain types of drugs in 2018. For example, the overdose death rate for synthetic opioids, not counting methadone, grew by 10% from 2017 to 2018. Meanwhile, the overdose death rate for stimulants such as methamphetamine increased by almost 22%. Overdose death rate for cocaine, also a stimulant, increased by almost 5%.

    CDC found the five states with the highest drug overdose death rates were:

    1. West Virginia (51.5 per 100,000);
    2. Delaware (43.8 per 100,000);
    3. Maryland (37.2 per 100,000);
    4. Pennsylvania (36.1 per 100,000); and
    5. Ohio (35.9 per 100,000).

    Reaction

    Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer at Well Being Trust, was encouraged by the report. "While modest, it's really great news that the data show progress" on life expectancy and drug overdose rates, he said. "We have to be a little bit optimistic that some of our approaches to the problems worked, but let's strike while the iron's hot."

    Miller attributed the decline in the overall drug overdose death rate to naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, noting that many states and cities have made naloxone available to emergency workers.

    Katherine Keyes, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, said the opioid epidemic is still a crisis, "[b]ut the fact that we have seen the first year where there's not an additional increase is encouraging."

    However, the rise in stimulant overdoses could be a warning sign of a potential stimulant epidemic, according to Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University. "Every opioid epidemic in American history has been followed by a stimulant epidemic," he said.

    As for the continued drop in cancer deaths, Rebecca Siegel, a researcher for the American Cancer Society, said she was "a little surprised" that the "rapid pace is continuing."

    Siegel credited improvements in lung cancer rates for much of the drop in cancer death rates, which is thanks to a combination of better treatments for the disease as well as fewer smokers (O'Donnell et al., USA Today, 1/30; Lopez, Vox, 1/30; AP/Los Angeles Times, 1/29).

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