The health of the United States remains in decline, according to a series of new reports released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Life expectancy in the U.S. has once again declined from the previous year, extending a years-long slide the likes of which we haven’t seen since the World War I era.
According to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, the average life expectancy at birth for Americans born in 2017 was 78.6 years, a step down from the 78.7 years expected in 2016, as well as from the record high of 78.9 years reported in 2014. Last year’s drop was concentrated among men, who saw their average life expectancy fall from 76.2 years in 2016 to 76.1 years in 2017, while women’s life expectancy stayed level at 81.1 years.
Life expectancy at birth is considered to be a good marker for a country’s overall health, since it takes into account things like the current death rate and trends in the causes of death. (The more something kills younger people, for instance, the more a newborn’s life expectancy would suffer). And in fact, the new findings confirm preliminary data released by the CDC this May, which reported a projected rise in the death rate in 2017. According to the final estimate, the death rate rose in 2017 among people ages 25 to 34, 35 to 44, and over 85, while it decreased for people ages 45 to 54.
Though the life expectancy in 2017 is obviously higher than it has been for most of America’s history, the continued decline is still incredibly worrying and almost unprecedented for a developed country in the modern era. As noted by the Washington Post, the U.S. hasn’t seen a three-year-long decrease in life expectancy since 1915 to 1918, a period of time that not only included World War I but a horrific flu pandemic that devastated the world.
“I think this is a very dismal picture of health in the United States,” Joshua M. Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Washington Post. “Life expectancy is improving in many places in the world. It shouldn’t be declining in the United States.”
One of the major drivers for the decline has been the drug overdose crisis. According to another report released by the CDC on Thursday, there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. last year, setting yet another record high (the toll is slightly lower than a provisional estimate of overdose deaths released by the government in August, but still surpasses the 63,000 seen in 2016). These deaths, as other reports have found, have been increasingly caused by potent synthetic opioids sold on the street such as fentanyl.
But while drug overdose deaths have played a large role in lowered life expectancy, they’re not the only factor. The national suicide rate has also steadily increased over the years, becoming the 10th leading cause of death in 2008.
From 1999 to 2017, another report released Thursday by the CDC found, the suicide rate increased by 33 percent, from 10.5 deaths per every 100,000 people in 1999 to 14 deaths per every 100,000 in 2017. This rise became particularly pronounced after 2006, and since 2016, suicide has become the second-leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34 and the fourth-leading cause for people between the ages of 35 and 54.
Some other likely factors behind the declining life expectancy include a steady rise in deaths from chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the particularly deadly flu season last winter. Meanwhile, other leading causes of death like heart disease and cancer continue to become less dominant.
There has been some modest progress in the regions hit hardest by the opioid crisis when it comes to expanding access to opioid use disorder treatment and life-saving interventions like the overdose antidote naloxone. But it isn’t yet clear whether these steps will stop the backslide anytime soon.