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US life expectancy drops again as overdoses climb

TAMPA, United States (AFP) — Life expectancy in the United States dropped yet again as drug overdose deaths continued to climb — taking more than 70,000 lives in 2017, a record high — and suicides rose, a US government report said Thursday.

The drug overdose rate rose 9.6 per cent compared to 2016, while suicides climbed 3.7 per cent, said the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics.

As a result, the average life span in America — seen as a key indicator of national health and prosperity — dropped to “78.6 years, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2016,” said the report.

The data comes as the United States grapples with a vast opioid epidemic, fuelled by addiction to prescription painkillers as well as street drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids including fentanyl.

“The latest CDC data show that the US life expectancy has declined over the past few years. Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide,” said CDC director Robert Redfield.

“These sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

Overdoses were a major factor when US life expectancy dropped slightly in 2015 for the first time in decades.

Another downtick was reported by the CDC in 2016, though those data were later revised to show a flat year, said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the NCHS.

Overall, the statistics show a “downward trend in life expectancy since 2014,” a time period in which Americans have lost 0.3 years of life, Anderson told AFP, describing the trend as “very concerning.”

Anderson said declines like this haven’t been seen since the great flu pandemic of 1918 and World War I — though those losses were steeper.

The peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s also saw a nationwide drop in life expectancy.

“We’re a developed country, we have a lot of resources, we should have increasing life expectancy, not decreasing life expectancy,” he added.

Canadians live on average three years longer than Americans. Japan has the longest life expectancy in the world, at almost 84.

Of particular concern is that young adults in their mid 20s to mid 40s are “driving the US life expectancy down,” according to Brandon Godbout, vice chair of emergency medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

“These cohorts experienced the most significant increase in death rates across all other age ranges from 2016 to 2017,” he said.

Across all ages, the rising toll of synthetic opioids like fentanyl — which killed the musicians Prince and Tom Petty — and tramadol soared by 45 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

The overall rate of heroin deaths was seven times higher than in 1999.

CDC figures showed that a total of 70,237 people died of overdoses in 2017.

Most of these deaths were unintentional in nature.

The rise — although dramatic at nearly 10 per cent year-on-year — was about half the spike seen a year earlier.

In 2016, 21.6 per cent more people died from overdoses compared to 2015.

Separately released preliminary government data for the first part of 2018 have also appeared to show a levelling off in overdose deaths.

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