Life expectancy in the United States fell for a second consecutive year in 2016, fueled by a 21 percent increase in the drug overdose death rate, the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
NCHS found that average life expectancy for the overall U.S. population fell to 78.6 years in 2016, from 78.7 years in 2015, while for men it dropped to 76.1 years from 76.3 years; life expectancy for women remained flat at 81.1 years. The data briefs also found that there were 63,632 deaths from drug overdose in the United States in 2016, up from 52,404 in 2015, and that the age-adjusted drug overdose death rate was 19.8 per 100,000 — up 21 percent from 16.3 per 100,000 in 2015. According to NCHS, West Virginia (52 per 100,000), Ohio (39.1), New Hampshire (39.0), the District of Columbia (38.8), and Pennsylvania (37.9) had the highest age-adjusted drug overdose death rates, while nationally the rate tripled between 1999 and 2016, with rates for deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol) doubling from 3.1 to 6.2 per 100,000 between 2015 and 2016.
The last time life expectancy in the United States declined two years in a row was in 1962 and 1963 as a result of influenza, while 1993 saw a one-year drop during the worst of the AIDS epidemic, the Washington Post reports.
"I think we should take it very seriously," Bob Anderson, chief of NCHS's Mortality Statistics Branch, told the Post. "If you look at the other developed countries in the world, they're not seeing this kind of thing. Life expectancy is going up."
"It's even worse than it looks," Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University, told the Post. Given that research has shown official figures could be undercounting the true number of opioid deaths by 20 percent or more, "we could easily be at fifty thousand opioid deaths last year," Humphreys added. "This means that even if you ignored deaths from all other drugs, the opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak."