By Ashley Fuoco Antonelli, Contributing Editor
CDC last week 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.
The reasons behind the increase in deaths and decrease in life expectancy are varied, but they largely center around two trends: More U.S. residents are dying by suicide and from opioid-drug related overdoses than ever before. However, some experts say there's hope for reversing that pattern. Let's take a closer look.
More US residents are dying—and it just lowered life expectancy
According to the latest CDC data, more than 2.8 million U.S. residents died in 2017, marking the highest number of annual deaths since the federal government started tracking mortality trends more than 100 years ago. CDC said the number of deaths in 2017 increased by nearly 70,000 when compared with 2016.
The increase in deaths caused U.S. life expectancy to fall by about one month from 2017 to 2016, CDC said. According to the data, a baby born in the United States in 2017 is expected to live to 78.6 years of age. That news followed a recent study that showed the United States' life expectancy rating is expected to drop from 43rd to 64th out of 195 countries by 2040.
CDC said the United States currently is in the longest period of declining life expectancy since the 1910s, when an influenza pandemic and World War I caused nearly one million deaths. Robert Anderson, head of CDC's Mortality Statistics Branch, told the Associated Press' Mike Stobbe, "[W]e've never really seen anything like this" in the past 100 years.
What's driving the increase in deaths?
Experts noted that, for the most part, the rise in deaths was due to the country's aging population and increases in deaths from influenza, pneumonia, Alzheimer's disease, and other medical conditions.
However, the number of deaths among younger age groups, as well as the causes of those deaths, sparked alarm.
The CDC data showed more than 70,000 U.S. residents died from drug-related overdoses last year (up from about 64,000 in 2016), with deaths related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl rising by 45%.
CDC said adults ages 25 to 54 had higher rates of drug overdose deaths in 2017 than those ages 15 to 24 and 55 and older.
In addition, the U.S. suicide rate in 2017 was higher than it's been since at least 1975. The data showed more than 47,000 U.S. residents died by suicide last year, up from slightly less than 45,000 in 2016. CDC said the U.S. suicide rate has increased by 33% since 1999—a particularly bleak statistic when compared with the global suicide rate, which has fallen by 38% since 1994.
Deaths related to suicide and drug overdoses are often referred to as "deaths of despair," and experts say the increase in such deaths might be fueled by growing feelings of hopelessness stemming from financial hardships or the divisive political culture.
CDC Director Robert Redfield called the latest CDC data "sobering" and "a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable."
Experts recognize hurdles, but have hope
While some experts say addressing rising suicide and drug-related deaths could be difficult, others are optimistic about the future.
Thomas Joiner, a leading suicide researcher, told USA Today's Anne Godlasky and Alia Dastagir, "We're trying to reduce suicide death rates in the face of a culture that's ever more fascinated with violence, that has a bunch of opiates around left and right, where family structure isn't getting more cohesive and neither is community structure." He added, "That's a lot to fight against."
And efforts to stem suicide often struggle with limited funding: Godlasky and Dastagir write that NIH in 2017 spent $68 million on initiatives related to suicide, while "[i]t spent nearly five times that [amount] studying sleep and 10 times more on breast cancer, which killed fewer people in 2016."
That said, CDC data has shown that the rate of drug overdose deaths started to decline toward the end of 2017 when compared with the rest of the year. HHS Secretary Alex Azar earlier this year suggested the United States is starting to "turn the tide" on the opioid epidemic.
And when it comes to suicide, April Foreman, a clinician on the American Association of Suicidology board of directors, told Godlasky and Dastagir that she believes the United States is "on a cusp of a movement. … Where the people who have survived suicide attempts, the people who live with chronic suicidality, the families, the loved ones, the people who are left, that they get up and say: This suffering is the same as someone who has died by HIV ... or cancer. It deserves the same quality science."
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are people at the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at all times who want to help. You can reach them at 800-273-TALK (8255).
Access our new resources on the opioid epidemic
The opioid epidemic is a complex, multi-dimensional public health problem. Use this list of helpful resources on how hospitals and health systems can play a role to treat opioid addiction and prevent further increase in opioid abuse.
- Tool: Opioid Population Profiler
- Infographic: 9 imperatives for hospital and health system executives to confront the opioid epidemic
- Report: Get 15 best practices to reduce unwarranted opioid prescribing