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

US Congress in session [Lawrence Jackson/Wikipedia]

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

As a result, the average life span in America 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, fueled by addiction to prescription painkillers as well as street drugs like heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Overdoses were a key factor in US life expectancy dropping slightly in 2015 for the first time in decades.

Another downtick was reported by the CDC in 2016, though that data was 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, he told AFP.

“We have a declining trend in life expectancy which is very concerning,” Anderson said, noting that downward trends of this kind haven’t been seen since the great flu pandemic of 1918 and the first World War.

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

– Overdose deaths –

CDC figures on US drug overdose deaths from 1999-2017 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 percent year-on-year — was less than half the spike seen a year earlier.

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

The age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths in 2017 was 21.7 per 100,000, far higher than the 16.3 per 100,000 in 2015.

Separately, a release of preliminary government data for the first part of 2018 has also appeared to show a leveling off in overdose deaths.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said a health conference in October, when that data came out, that the “seemingly relentless trend of rising overdose deaths seems to be finally bending in the right direction.”

But experts urged caution in interpreting the results to mean the opioid epidemic ravaging the nation has peaked, or is anywhere near an end.

“It is encouraging to see the trajectory of this start to decrease, without a doubt,” said Harshal Kirane, director of addiction services at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, who was not involved in the data collection.

“What would be a signal of some real change would be when the total number of overdose deaths year to year is actually decreasing,” he told AFP.

“Seventy-thousand deaths is hard to digest in any way as a positive outcome.”
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