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Suicides and Drug Overdose Deaths Push Down US Life Expectancy

FILE - A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, Sept. 30, 2014.
FILE - A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, Sept. 30, 2014.
Suicides and Drug Overdose Deaths Push Down US Life Expectancy
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Suicides and drug overdoses were two reasons for an increase in the number of deaths in the United States last year. They also were partly to blame for a continuing decrease in how long Americans are expected to live.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there were more than 2.8 million deaths nationwide in 2017. That is nearly 70,000 more than in 2016. It was the most deaths in a single year since the U.S. government began counting more than a century ago.

The Associated Press says the increase is partly a result of the nation’s growing, aging population. But it is deaths in younger age groups — especially middle-aged people — that have had the biggest effect on life expectancy, experts said.

The “statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield.

The report, called “Suicide Mortality in the United States, 1999-2017,” was based on government records. It found that the suicide death rate last year was the highest in at least 50 years. There were more than 47,000 suicides, up from a little less than 45,000 the year before.

In addition to suicide, the United States is experiencing a drug abuse crisis, with more than 70,000 overdose deaths last year. The CDC report, “Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999-2017,” said overdose deaths rose 10 percent last year. It blamed the increase largely on the illegal use of synthetic opioids, drugs that are designed to ease pain.

The Decrease

For a long time, U.S. life expectancy rates were increasing, rising a few months nearly every year. Now, life expectancy is decreasing. It fell in 2015, stayed the same in 2016, and decreased again last year, the CDC said.

A baby born in the United States last year is expected to live about 78 years and 7 months. An American born in 2015 or 2016 was expected to live about a month longer, and one born in 2014 about two months longer than that.

The nation is in the longest period of decreasing life expectancy since the early 1900s, when World War I and influenza combined killed nearly 1 million Americans. In 1918, average life expectancy was 39 years.

Barring the unusual experience of the early 20th century, “we’ve never really seen anything like this,” said Robert Anderson, a CDC official.

Among the nation’s 10 leading causes of death, only the cancer death rate fell in 2017, while 7 other causes increased. They include suicide, drug overdose, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Heart disease remains the number one killer, and the death rate from heart disease has stopped falling. In years past, reductions in heart disease deaths were enough to serve as a counterbalance to other causes of death, but that is no longer true, Anderson said.

Causes of Death

CDC officials did not try to explain the cause of decreasing life expectancy, but a disease prevention expert thinks the cause is hopelessness.

William Dietz is with George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He suggested that financial struggles, inequality and divisive politics are all depressing many Americans. “I really do believe that people are increasingly hopeless, and that that leads to drug use, it leads…to suicide,” he said.

But the increase in drug overdose deaths has started to slow. From 2015 to 2016, the rate of increase was 26 percent, but from 2016 to 2017, it was 10 percent.

That’s not quite cause for celebration, said John Rowe, a professor of health policy at Columbia University in New York.

“Maybe it’s starting to slow down, but it hasn’t turned around yet,” Rowe said. “I think it will take several years.”

I’m Susan Shand.

Susan Shand wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

overdosen. an amount of a drug or medicine that is too much and usually dangerous

statistic n. a number that represents a piece of information

syntheticadj. made by combining different substances : not natural

influenza – n. a common disease that is caused by a virus and that causes fever, weakness, body aches, and breathing problem

diabetes – n. a serious disease in which the body cannot properly control the amount of sugar in your blood because it does not have enough insulin