US life expectancy rises for the first time in four years

Drug overdose deaths dropped significantly in 2018 and 2019, contributing to the U.S. life expectancy rise. While drug overdoses are still a crisis, the trend shift gives experts hope. 

Devin Leith-Yessian/Record-Journal/AP
Runners in the Bernie Jurale Memorial Tradition Run make their way around Merimere Reservoir in Meriden, Conn., on Jan. 19, 2020. For the first time since 2017, researchers say U.S. life expectancy rose by one month.

Life expectancy in the United States is up for the first time in four years. The increase is small – just a month – but marks at least a temporary halt to a downward trend. The rise is primarily due to lower death rates for cancer and drug overdoses.

"Let's just hope it continues," said Robert Anderson, who oversees the report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers went down. However, deaths from other drugs – fentanyl, cocaine, and meth – continued to go up. And preliminary data for the first half of 2019 suggest the overall decline in overdose deaths is already slowing down.

It's still a crisis, said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University researcher. "But the fact that we have seen the first year where there's not an additional increase is encouraging."

The national decline was driven by dips in 14 states, the CDC's Mr. Anderson said. Those include states where overdose deaths have been most common, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

In Ohio's Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, overdose deaths fell in 2018 and preliminary data indicates another drop last year. County health commissioner Tim Ingram credited efforts to try to expand access to treatment, and to widely distribute the overdose reversal drug Narcan.

"We almost saturated our community with Narcan," he said. 

The latest national calculation is for 2018 and factors in current death trends and other issues. On average, an infant born that year is expected to live about 78 years and 8 months, the CDC said. For males, it's about 76 years and 2 months; for females 81 years and 1 month.

For decades, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing, rising a few months nearly every year. But from 2014 to 2017, it fell slightly or held steady. That was blamed largely on surges in overdose deaths and suicides.

Suicides continued to increase in 2018, as did deaths from the flu and pneumonia during what turned out to be an unusually bad flu year. But declines in some other causes of death – most notably drug overdoses – were enough to overcome all that, according to the report.

Also striking was the drop in drug overdose deaths that had skyrocketed through 2017. The death rate fell by 4% in 2018 and the number of deaths dropped to about 67,400.

Nationally, for all causes of death, more than 2.8 million Americans died in 2018. That's about 26,000 more than the year before, the CDC report found. The number went up even as the death rate went down, because the population is growing and a large group are retirement age baby boomers.

Americans who were 65 in 2018 are expected to live another 19 years and six months, on average. The infant mortality rate fell more than 2%, to 1 in 177 births.

The suicide death rate hit its highest level since 1941 – about 14 per 100,000. The rate peaked during the Depression in 1932 then mostly declined until 2000. It has been rising most years since then.

The U.S. has the highest suicide rate of 11 wealthy nations studied, according to a separate report released Thursday by the private Commonwealth Fund. That report also found U.S. life expectancy is two years lower that the average for the 10 other wealthy nations.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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