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Driven by suicides and drug overdoses, U.S. life expectancy continues to fall

The latest drop in life expectancy may not seem that big, but it points to a deeply worrisome trend.

Life expectancy in the United States declined in 2017 for the second time in three years, driven largely by rising numbers of suicides and drug overdoses, according to a trio of reports released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

A person born in the United States in 2017 can expect to live to 78.6 years, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2016, government statisticians estimate. Life expectancy also decreased — by 0.2 year — in 2015, and then stayed flat in 2016. (The CDC had originally reported that life expectancy fell in 2016, but later revised that estimate after it received some additional data.)

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The latest drop in life expectancy may not seem that big, but it points to a deeply worrisome trend. The U.S. is now experiencing the longest sustained drop in life expectancy in a century — since 1915 through 1919, a period that included World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed 675,000 Americans.

In a statement released with the reports, CDC Director Robert Redfield described the data as “troubling.”

“Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the Nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” he said.

Key drivers

The 10 leading causes of death in the U.S. — heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, influenza/pneumonia, kidney disease and suicide — were the same in 2017 as in 2016.

Age-adjusted death rates for the 10 leading causes of death: U.S., 2016 and 2017

bar chart of top death causes 2016 vs 2017
Source: CDC
Those causes accounted for about 75 percent of all U.S. deaths in 2017. Only one — cancer — had a death rate that fell (by 2.1 percent) in 2017. The rates for the others either rose or remained unchanged.

Deaths due to influenza and pneumonia climbed the most in 2017, due to a particularly deadly flu season. But, as Redfield noted in his statement, the increases in deaths from drug overdoses and suicides are the ones that are having the greatest impact on total life expectancy. That’s because those deaths tend to involve younger people. Those are also deaths that are preventable.

Tragic trends

During 2017, drug overdoses claimed the lives of 70,237 Americans. The rate of drug-overdose deaths that year (21.7 per 100,000 people) was almost 10 percent higher than the rate in 2016 (19.8 per 100,000).

Adults aged 25 to 54 died from drug overdoses in 2017 at a higher rate than either younger or older age groups. Yet, as the CDC points out, the greatest rise in the drug-overdose death rates during the past two decades has occurred among adults aged 55 to 64. About 4 deaths per 100,000 occurred among people in this age group in 1999 compared to 28 per 100,000 in 2017 — a more than six-fold increase.

Age-adjusted drug overdose death rates: U.S., 1999–2017

line chart of overdose deaths by gender showing increases from 1999 to 2017
Source: CDC
The suicide rate in the U.S. has also climbed steadily — by about a third — during the past two decades. In 2017, the rate was 14 suicides per 100,000 people, up from 10.5 per 100,000 in 1999.

The greatest increases have occurred in recent years. The suicide rate rose, on average, by about 1 percent per year from 1999 through 2006, and then by about 2 percent per year from 2006 through 2017.

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Among women, the suicide rate has increased at an even higher rate — about 3 percent per year, on average, since 2007. More men than women die of suicide in the U.S. each year, however.

The CDC’s data also reveal that the suicide rate in rural areas continues to be higher than the rate in urban ones. In 2017, the suicide rate in rural counties (20 suicides per 100,000 people) was nearly twice as high as that in urban ones (about 11 per 100,000).

Age-adjusted suicide rates, by county urbanization level: U.S., 1999 and 2017

column chart of suicide rates by geographic density
Source: CDC
One of the reasons for that higher suicide rate is likely related to two other statistics: People living in rural areas are twice as likely as their urban counterparts to own a gun, and more than half of all suicides are committed with firearms.

For more information: You can read all three CDC reports on the agency’s website.