Life expectancy in the U.S. fell for the second year in a row, a statistic that reflects the growing number of overdose deaths from the nation’s opioid epidemic.
“I’m not prone to dramatic statements,” said Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics. “But I think we should be really alarmed. The drug overdose problem is a public health problem and it needs to be addressed. We need to get a handle on it.”
Life expectancy in the U.S. – a general indicator of overall wellbeing – has been rising through the decades, though it is not uncommon to see small downward ticks from year to year. The last dip was in 1993 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Life expectancy hasn’t dropped two years in a row in more than 50 years.
But the latest trend is “quite concerning,” Anderson says. In 2014, life expectancy was 78.9. The following year it dropped to 78.7. In 2016, life expectancy fell another tenth of a percent to 78.6.
“For any individual, that’s not a whole lot. But when you’re talking about it in terms of a population, you’re talking about a significant number of potential lives that aren’t being lived,” Anderson said.
Medical advances through the years have vastly improved life expectancy. But in recent years, a growing number of people have succumbed to opioid addiction and overdose. More than 63,600 people died from drug overdoses in 2016 – 42,200 of them were opioid overdoses. That’s an increase over the previous year’s overdose count of 52,400 overdose deaths, 33,000 of which were opioid-related.
“It’s just really dramatically increased,” Anderson said, adding that the opioid epidemic “appears to be accelerating.”