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U.S. life expectancy falls for second year in a row

Life expectancy in the United States has declined for a second year in a row, driven in large part because increasing numbers of Americans are dying from drug overdoses, suicides and chronic liver disease, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Life expectancy at birth, by sex and race and Hispanic origin: United States, 2006–2016
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services
Life expectancy at birth, by sex and race and Hispanic origin: United States, 2006–2016
A baby born in 2016 can expect to live 78.6 years, which is down from 78.7 years in 2015 and 78.9 years in 2014.

It’s the first time in decades that U.S. life expectancy has fallen for two straight years. Final life expectancy data for 2017 is not yet available, but preliminary figures released last May by the CDC suggest that the downward trajectory of the past two years is continuing.

A major factor behind that disturbing trend is the rising death rate for young adults between the ages of 15 and 44, which climbed by about 5 percent each year between 2013 and 2016.

U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services
Age-adjusted death rates for selected causes of death for all ages, by sex: United States, 2006–2016
The CDC has released individual aspects of this data before, but the agency’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) has now pulled those elements together into its annual comprehensive report on the country’s health, which was published Thursday.

The report says that three major causes of death — drug overdoses, suicide and chronic liver disease — are largely behind the recent reversal in U.S. life expectancy:

  • The death rate for drug overdoses increased 72 percent between 2006 and 2016. In 2016, the rate was 19.8 deaths per 100,000 people, and most of those deaths were from opioid overdoses.
  • The death rate from suicides climbed 23 percent between 2006 and 2016, reaching 11 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016. Among people aged 15 to 24, suicide increased by 7 percent per year between 2014 and 2016, and is now the second-leading cause of death in that age group. It’s also the third-leading cause of death among people aged 25 to 44.
  • The death rate from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, diseases often caused by alcohol abuse, also rose dramatically. Although older adults die from these diseases at much higher rates than younger ones, the toll is accelerating for people in their 20s and 30s. Between 2006 and 2016, liver-disease-related deaths increased by an average of 7.9 percent per year for men aged 25 to 34. For women in that age group, the increase was even steeper: an average of 11.4 percent per year.

But these three “deaths of despair” aren’t the only drivers behind the recent decline in life expectancy. NCHS officials also note that deaths from Alzheimer’s disease and septicemia (blood poisoning) are on the rise.

There’s some good news regarding life expectancy in report: Deaths from heart disease and cancer have declined over the past decade, although those from heart disease have begun to plateau in the recent years.

FMI: The report, Health, United States, 2017, can be read in full at the CDC’s website.

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