The lifetime of the United States is declining, partly due to drugs and suicide

The average life expectancy in the US declined in 2017 for the third consecutive year, as deaths in suicide and drug overdoses continue to require more American lives.

The average American could expect to reach 78.6 years of age in 2017, down from 78.7 in 2016, according to data released Thursday at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This decline may be mild, but the third consecutive year means that the life expectancy at birth has decreased – a remarkable phenomenon, as the previous multi-year drop recorded by the NCHS was in the early 1960s.

According to the new data, the modern trend appears to be driven by a steady increase in the number of deaths due to suicide and drugs. Increases in deaths due to suicide and accidental injuries (including drug overdose) as well as Alzheimer's disease, stroke, influenza and pneumonia have outpaced the reduction in the number of fatal heart disease and cancer, two of the main causes of death in the country. Overall mortality in the US increased by 0.4% between 2016 and 2017, from 728.8 deaths per 100,000 to 731.9.

The drug overdose itself had 70,237 lives in 2017, the highest number recorded in one year. While this figure corresponds to a 9.6% increase in mortality, it is much lower than the 21% jump recorded between 2015 and 2016 – perhaps a sign that the substance abuse epidemic may begin to stabilize. Preliminary data released last month also reported that drug overdose deaths have fallen over the past year.

However, drugs – opiates such as heroin – are still a serious cause of death. Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are an increasing problem: the overdose death rate that includes these drugs has increased by 45% between 2016 and 2017.

The number of suicide deaths in the meantime increased by 3.7% between 2016 and 2017, according to a new report. While still relatively unusual, suicides last year accounted for 14 deaths per 100,000 people in the US. By contrast, in 1999, this figure was around 10.5 per 100,000 people.

The increase was particularly pronounced in women, although most people who die in suicide are men. The female suicide rate increased by 53% between 1999 and 2017, compared with 26% for men. Earlier CDC data showed a particularly worrying rise among adolescent girls who increased by approximately 70% between 2010 and 2016.

New data are desperate, but the continued decline in heart disease and cancer deaths provides a silver lining. While the reduction in heart disease was relatively small last year, the cancer mortality rate declined by 2.1% – a trend that probably reflects better screening and detection, declining smoking rates, widespread vaccination against HPV-associated cancer, and other advances in the area public health.

Write Jamie Ducharme at [email protected]

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