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US Life Expectancy Drops, Partly Because of Drugs and Suicide



US life expectancy fell in 2017 for the third year in a row, because suicide deaths and drug overdoses continue to claim more American lives.

The average American can expect to live up to 78.6 years in 2017, down from 78.7 in 2016, according to data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and the National Center for Preventive Health Statistics (NCHS). The decline may be modest, but it marks the third consecutive year that life expectancy at birth has fallen – a phenomenon worthy of note, since the previous multi-year decline recorded by the NCHS occurred in the early 1960s.

The modern trend seems to be driven by an increase in stable deaths due to suicide and drugs, according to new data. Upticks in suicide deaths and unintentional injuries (including drug overdoses), and because of conditions including Alzheimer's disease, stroke, influenza and pneumonia, have exceeded the reduction of heart disease and fatal cancer, two of the leading causes of death in the country. Overall, the US death rate increased by 0.4% from 2016 to 2017, increasing from 728.8 deaths per 100,000 people to 731.9.

Drug overdose alone took 70,237 people in 2017, the highest number ever recorded for one year. While that figure corresponds to a 9.6% increase in mortality rates, it is much smaller than the 21% surge recorded between 2015 and 2016 – perhaps a sign that the national substance abuse epidemic might be stabilizing. Preliminary data released last month also said deaths from drug overdoses have declined over the past year.

However, drugs – opioids such as heroin – continue to be a significant cause of death. And synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are a growing problem: Overdose mortality rates involving these drugs have risen 45% from 2016 to 2017.

Suicide deaths, meanwhile, rose 3.7% between 2016 and 2017, according to a new report. Although still relatively rare, suicide accounts for 14 deaths per 100,000 people in the US last year. In 1999, on the contrary, that number was around 10.5 per 100,000 people.

The increase mainly occurs in women, although most people who die from suicide are men. Female suicide rates increased by 53% between 1999 and 2017, compared to 26% for men. Past CDC data has shown an alarming increase among teenage girls, whose suicide rates increased by around 70% between 2010 and 2016.

The new data is serious, but the continuous decline in heart disease and cancer deaths provides a silver lining. While the reduction in heart disease deaths was quite small last year, the cancer death rate fell 2.1% – a trend likely to reflect better screening and detection, declining smoking rates, expanded vaccination against HPV-related cancers and other public health advancements.

Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com.


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