The expected life span of the United States fell in 2017 for the third year in a row, as mortality from suicide and an overdose of drugs continued to demand more American lives.
The average American can expect to live up to 78.6 years in 2017, falling from 78.7 in 2016, according to data released Thursday by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention at the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). This decline can be modest, but it is the third consecutive year that has dropped life after birth – an important phenomenon, as the previous multi-year decline recorded by NCHS was in the early 1960s.
It seems that the modern trend is fueled by the steady increase in deaths by suicide and drugs, according to new data. The use of deaths from suicide and accidental injuries (including drug overdose), as well as due to conditions including Alzheimer's disease, stroke, influenza, and pneumonia, have exceeded reductions in fatal heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of the country's death. Together, the US mortality rate rose 0.4 percent from 2016 to 2017, from 728.8 deaths per 100,000 to 731.9.
Only drug overdoses took 70,237 lives in 2017, the highest number observed in a year. While that figure corresponds to a 9.6% increase in the mortality rate, it is much lower than the 21% jump registered between 2015 and 2016 – perhaps a sign that the substance abuse epidemic could begin to stabilize. Preliminary data released last month also said drug overdose deaths fell last year.
However, drugs – namely opioids such as heroin – remain a significant cause of death. And synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are a growing problem: The rate of death from overdose with these drugs increased by 45% from 2016 to 2017.
Deaths in suicide, meanwhile, rose by 3.7 percent between 2016 and 2017, according to a new report. While it is still relatively unusual, suicides accounted for 14 deaths per 100,000 people in the United States last year. In 1999, however, it was about 10.5 per 100,000 people.
Increases are particularly pronounced in women, although most people who die of suicide are men. The female suicide rate increased by 53% between 1999 and 2017, compared to 26% for men. Data from the past CDC showed particularly worrying increases in teenagers, for which the suicide rate increased by about 70% between 2010 and 2016.
The new data is sobering, but the continuous decline in heart disease and cancer deaths provide a silver coating. While the reduction in heart disease deaths is rather low last year, the cancer mortality rate has dropped by 2.1% – a trend that may reflect better screening and detection, smoking rates, an extended breast cancer vaccine with HPV and other advances in public health.