Drug Overdose, Suicide Deaths Cut US Life Expectancy

Megan Brooks

November 29, 2018

Driven largely by deaths from drug overdoses and suicide, life expectancy in the United States dropped during the period from 2016 to 2017, according to the latest data from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The trend is "troubling," CDC Director Robert R Redfield, MD, said in a statement.

"Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation's overall health, and these sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable," said Redfield.

"CDC is committed to putting science into action to protect US health, but we must all work together to reverse this trend and help ensure that all Americans live longer and healthier lives," he added.

Drug overdoses claimed the lives of 70,237 people in United States in 2017, according to the official tally released today by the CDC. Most of these deaths were unintentional.

Rates of drug overdose continued to increase. In 2017, the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths was 9.6% higher than the rate in 2016 (21.7 vs 19.8 per 100,000), although the percentage increase was lower than that seen from 2015 to 2016, when the rate rose by 21% (from 16.3 to 19.8 per 100,000).

The rate of drug overdose deaths in 2017 was 3.6 times higher than the rate in 1999. Rates increased for both men (from 8.2 in 1999 to 29.1 in 2017) and women (from 3.9 in 1999 to 14.4 in 2017).

In 2017, the highest rates of drug overdose deaths occurred among adults aged 25 to 54 years. From 1999 to 2017, the greatest increase in drug overdose death rates occurred among adults aged 55 to 64, from 4.2 to 28.0 per 100,000, a more than sixfold increase.

In 2017, West Virginia (57.8 per 100,000), Ohio (46.3), Pennsylvania (44.3), and the District of Columbia (44.0) had the highest drug overdose death rates. Texas (10.5), North Dakota (9.2), South Dakota (8.5), and Nebraska (8.1) had the lowest drug overdose death rates in 2017.

The pattern of drugs involved in overdose deaths has changed in recent years. The rate of deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and tramadol) jumped 45%, from 6.2 per 100,000 in 2016 to 9.0 in 2017.

The rates of drug overdose deaths involving heroin (4.9 per 100,000), natural and semisynthetic opioids (4.4), and methadone (1.0) were the same in 2016 and 2017. However, in 2017, the rate of deaths caused by heroin overdose was seven times higher than in 1999.

Suicide Rates Up

The data on suicide are no less troubling. From 2016 to 2017, the suicide rate increased 3.7%, the CDC reports. During the past 18 years, the suicide rate jumped 33%, from 10.5 suicides per 100,000 in 1999 to 14.0 in 2017.

The average annual percentage increase in suicide rates accelerated from roughly 1% per year during the period 1999-2006 to 2% per year in 2006-2017.

Since 1999, suicide rates have increased for both males (from 17.8 to 22.4 per 100,000) and females (from 4.0 to 6.1). The rates in the most rural US counties were nearly twofold higher than the rates in the most urban counties (20.0 vs 11.1 per 100,000), the report notes.

In 1999, the age-adjusted suicide rate for the most rural counties (13.1 per 100,000) was 1.4 times the rate for the most urban counties (9.6), whereas in 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate for the most rural counties (20.0) was 1.8 times the rate for the most urban counties (11.1).

The age-adjusted suicide rate for the most urban counties in 2017 was 16% higher than the rate in 1999. The rate for the most rural counties in 2017 was 53% higher than the rate in 1999.

An increase in deaths from drug overdoses and suicides contributed to a decline in overall life expectancy in the United States, the CDC says. The estimate of how long a person born in 2017 can expect to live in the United States is now 78.6 years, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2016.

The age-adjusted death rate for the entire US population increased by 0.4%, from 728.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 2016 to 731.9 in 2017.

The 10 leading causes of death in 2017 (heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide) remained the same as in 2016.

CDC. NCHS Data Brief. Published online November 29, 2018. No. 328, Full text; No. 329, Full text; No. 330, Full text

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