JAN 05, 2018 7:16 AM PST

Is the Opioid Crisis Impacting Life Expectancy?

The goal of staying healthy is to hopefully live a longer life. With advancements in medical care, drugs and better information on diet and lifestyle, it's possible to live not just a healthier life, but one that reaches well into seven or even eight decades.

The latest statistics on life expectancy, however, are not encouraging. For the second year in a row, the National Center for Health Statistics, which is a part of the Centers for Disease Control, reported a drop in life expectancy based on the death rate in 2016. The decrease was by 0.1 years.

While that might not seem like much, it's significant given that the figures for 2015 show a similar drop. When life expectancy goes down, especially two years in a row, health experts start to break out the numbers to look closer at possible causes. The last time there was a consecutive drop in life expectancy was in 1962 and 1963. The decline that year is thought to be due to a deadly strain of influenza that struck many older adults. Before last year, there was a single dip in life expectancy in 1993, which some experts attribute to the AIDS epidemic.

Part of the dip in longevity is thought to be connected to the opioid crisis. Deaths from drug overdoses reached a high of 63,600 in 2016, a 21% increase over the previous years and the largest single-year jump ever. Roughly 42,000 of those overdose deaths were from opioids. Fentanyl, a potent opioid, is a big part of the overdose issue. In the years from 2013 to 2016, deaths from fentanyl have gone up, on average, a whopping 88% each year. Numbers like these, along with a decline in the reduction of deaths from heart attacks and strokes, adds up to another year of an overall life expectancy drop.

Bob Anderson, chief of the Mortality Statistics Branch at the CDC, told CNN, "It just keeps going up and up and appears to be accelerating. In the past, those increases have been more than completely offset by declines in cardiovascular mortality. What's happened in recent years, since about 2010 or so, is a substantial slowdown in the rate of decline in cardiovascular mortality. It seems to be leveling off to some extent, and as a result, the drug overdose deaths are more prominent in the overall picture of mortality." As a comparison, the number of Americans who died in 2016 from opioids was 42,249. In the same period, deaths from breast cancer totaled 41,070. Simply put, in 2016, drugs like heroin and fentanyl were more deadly than breast cancer.

While deaths from drug overdoses rose dramatically, cancer and heart disease are still the leading cause of death among both women and men. The good news on that front is that measures like exercise, a healthy diet and staying away from smoking and excessive alcohol intake will dramatically reduce one's risk of death from cardiovascular disease or cancer.

When asked if the increase in opioid deaths are a trend, Anderson said there would need to be more data before calling it that. However, he pointed out that half the numbers for 2017 are already in, stating, "We have data for almost half of 2017 at this point. It's still quite provisional, but it suggests that we're in for another increase. If we're not careful, we could end up with declining life expectancy for three years in a row, which we haven't seen since the Spanish flu, 100 years ago."

Sources: National Center for Health Statistics, CNN, Huffington Post 

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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