In 2015, 86,212 more Americans died than the year before. That means life expectancy in the United States is heading in the wrong direction—something that hasn’t happened since 1993.
A new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that life expectancy in the US fell in 2015, a decline of 0.1 years from the year before. Based on current mortality rates, an infant born in 2015 should be expected to live on average to age 78.8. It’s usually taken for granted that life expectancy rises each year, especially in developed countries like the US. The CDC’s new report highlights the need for an examination into why life expectancy is now going in the wrong direction, and what can be done to address it.
Last year’s mortality increase is the first since 1993—a year when HIV/AIDS, the flu, and other factors came into play. But we had an inkling that something weird was going on when a PNAS paper came out in October of last year showing that middle-aged white folks in the US were living shorter and unhealthier lives. From 1998 to 2013, death rates among American whites between the ages of 45 to 54 increased by half a percent each year. The CDC’s new report expands upon this research, providing data about the entire US population—and the numbers aren’t encouraging.
In 2015, male life expectancy fell from 76.5 to 76.3 years, and for women, it dropped from 81.3 to 81.2 years. The death rate increased 1.2 percent from 724.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014 to 733.1 in 2015. Mortality among black women, Hispanic women, and Hispanic men didn’t change from 2014 to 2015. On a (slightly) positive note, the rate of infant mortality did not change noticeably in 2015.
In 2015, the 10 leading causes of death were the same as they were the year before: heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide. All of these causes of death increased in 2015 from the year before, except pneumonia, which stayed the same, and cancer, which fell by 1.7 percent.
It’s important to point out that life expectancy is a measure of current trends and modern causes of mortality. When researchers say an infant can “be expected” to live to a certain age, it’s an assessment that doesn’t take future medical developments and other interventions into account. Basically, it’s commentary on what’s happening to adults today, not on how long your toddler is going to live.
So what’s going on? CDC researcher Jaquan Xu says the opioid epidemic is partly to blame. “We’re seeing so many more preventable causes of death, and they’re significantly affecting mortality negatively,” he told STAT. Accidental poisonings increased 13 percent last year, he said, 97 percent of which came from drug overdoses and alcohol. At the same time, deaths from motor vehicle accidents shot up by six percent.
The good news, as Xu points out, is that many of these causes of death are preventable. Hopefully the Trump administration will take note and act accordingly. To address the opioid epidemic, Americans are going to need more than just a wall.