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U.S. Life Expectancy Continues Downward Trend

Drug overdoses and suicides caused American life expectancy to drop in 2017 for the second consecutive year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most notable is the gap between the urban and rural suicide rate.
December 1, 2018, 1pm PST | Irvin Dawid
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"Public health and demographic experts reacted with alarm to the release of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual statistics, which are considered a reliable barometer of a society’s health," reports Lenny Bernstein who covers health and medicine for The Washington Post. 

The CDC issues its health statistics report each December. The 2017 report pdf] is the third in a row to show a decline [or stagnation] in life expectancy.

Overall, Americans could expect to live 78.6 years at birth in 2017, down a tenth of a year from the 2016 estimate, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. 

Among the 44 countries graphed by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the U.S. had the 28th highest life expectancy in 2017. Switzerland and Japan were highest.

However, it's not end-of-life illnesses that are reducing American's life expectancy. Bernstein notes that "deaths from cancer continued their long, steady, downward trend, and deaths from heart disease, the No. 1 killer of Americans, which had been declining until 2011, continued to level off."

"Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide," said Robert R. Redfield, M.D., CDC Director, in an official statement.


Drug overdose deaths increased 9.6 percent in 2017 from 2016, with those attributed to synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, increasing by 45 percent.

"The geographic disparity in overdose deaths continued in 2017," notes Bernstein. The 2017 national average was 21.7 per 100,000,

West Virginia again led the nation with 57.8 deaths per 100,000 people, followed by Ohio, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. Nebraska, by contrast, had just 8.1 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents.


In a companion report, the government detailed the ongoing growth of deaths from suicide, which has climbed steadily since 1999 and grown worse since 2006.

Most notable is the widening gap between urban and rural Americans. Suicide rates in the most rural counties are now nearly double those in the most urban counties.

 Age-adjusted suicide rates, by county urbanization level: United States, 1999 and 2017

Figure 4 shows age-adjusted rates for suicide deaths by level of urbanization of the decedent’s county of residence in 1999 and 2017.

Credit: CDC/National Center for Health Statistics

“Higher suicide rates in rural areas are due to nearly 60 percent of rural homes having a gun versus less than half of homes in urban areas,” wrote Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, in an email. “Having easily available lethal means is a big risk factor for suicide.”

"The CDC had not touched firearm research since 1996 — when the NRA accused the agency of promoting gun control and Congress threatened to strip the agency’s funding," wrote Todd C. Frankel for The Washington Post on Jan. 14, 2015.

A Popular Science article, "The decline in U.S. life expectancy is unlike anything we've seen in a century," identifies a third factor — chronic liver disease, as a reason for the reduced life expectancy.

Related in Planetizen: 

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Published on Thursday, November 29, 2018 in The Washington Post
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