Life expectancy in the United States fell again as drug-related deaths continued to increase – taking more than 70,000 lives in 2017 – and suicide increased, a US government report said Thursday.
The rate of drug overdose rose 9.6 percent compared to 2016, while suicide rose 3.7 percent, said the Center for Health Statistics Center for Prevention and Disease Control (CDC).
As a result, the average life span in America fell to "78.6 years, a decline of 0.1 years from 2016," said the report.
Data comes as the United States grapples with a broad opioid epidemic, driven by addiction to prescribed painkillers and street drugs such as synthetic heroin and opioids including fentanyl.
"The latest CDC data shows that US life expectancy has declined over the past few years. Tragically, this disturbing trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdoses and suicide," said CDC director Robert Redfield.
"Life expectancy gives us an idea of the overall health of the nation and this serious statistic is a warning that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, for preventable conditions."
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Overdose was a major factor when US life expectancy fell slightly in 2015 for the first time in decades.
Another downtick was reported by the CDC in 2016, although the data was later revised to show a flat year, said Robert Anderson, head of the branch of the death statistics at the NCHS.
Overall, statistics show "a downward trend in life expectancy since 2014," the time period in which Americans have lost 0.3 years of life, he told AFP, describing the trend as "very alarming."
Anderson said such a decline had not been seen since the 1918 major flu pandemic and World War I – although the losses were steeper.
The peak of the HIV / AIDS epidemic in the 1980s also showed a decline in life expectancy nationally.
"We are a developed country, we have a lot of resources, we have to increase life expectancy, not reduce life expectancy," he added.
Canadians live an average of three years longer than Americans. Japan has the longest life expectancy in the world, almost 84 years.
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Deaths due to drug overdose from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl – which killed musicians Prince and Tom Petty – and tramadol increased by 45 percent between 2016 and 2017.
Heroin death rates are seven times higher than in 1999.
CDC figures show that a total of 70,237 people died from overdoses in 2017.
Most of these deaths are unintentional.
The increase – though dramatic at almost 10 percent year-on-year – was about half the surge seen a year earlier.
In 2016, 21.6 percent more people died from overdoses than in 2015.
Preliminary government data released separately for the first part of 2018 have also appeared to show an increase in overdose deaths.
Minister of Health and Human Services Alex Azar said at a health conference in October, when the data came out, that "the seemingly endless trend of the increase in overdose deaths seems to finally bend in the right direction."
But experts urge caution in interpreting the results, which means the opioid epidemic has reached its peak, or is nearing its end.
"It is very encouraging to see this trajectory begin to diminish, without doubt," said Harshal Kirane, director of addiction services at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, who was not involved in data collection.
"What will be a signal of some real changes is when the number of deaths from overdoses from year to year actually decreases," he told AFP.
"Seventy thousand deaths are difficult to digest in any way as a positive result."