Life expectancy

Grim News: U.S. Life Expectancy Falls for a Second Straight Year

Largely due to increases in opioid overdose deaths


Alexei Poselenov/Dreamstime

Life expectany is expected to rise in rich, developed countries such as the United States. So it's concerning when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that "life expectancy for the U.S. population in 2016 was 78.6 years, a decrease of 0.1 year from 2015."

Worse still, that's the second straight year that life expectancy has come down. Back in 2014, the average American lived to be 78.9.

The last time average U.S. life expectancy dropped for even one year was way back in 1993, just prior to the development and widespread deployment of effective treatments for AIDS. The last time U.S. life expectancy fell for two years in a row was in the 1960s, due to fierce influenza outbreaks.

The CDC says one of the main causes of this decline is an increase of drug overdoses from 53,000 in 2016 to 64,000 in 2016. Opioids such as fentanyl and heroin accounted for most of the increase in overdose deaths.

Most disturbingly, the CDC data show that last year death rates increased for every age group from 15 to 64. Death rates declined for folks ages 65 and 84, while increasing for those 85 and older. In the latter case, as the heart disease and cancer survival rates improve, more Americans are living long enough to die of dementia.

So what to do? NPR reports that the demographer and sociologist Arun Hendi

says the nation "urgently" needs to cut off the supply of drugs flooding the market, "particularly heroin and fentanyl." The U.S. also needs to increase the availability of treatment for addicted Americans and improve access to high-quality health care, he says.

Given the manifest failure of the decades-long Drug War, declaring that the authorities should cut off the supply of drugs is quixotic at best. It bears noting that a fascinating 2017 National Bureau of Economic Research study, "How the Reformulation of OxyContin Ignited the Heroin Epidemic," reports: "Between 1999 and 2009, opioid death rates were rising rapidly but heroin death rates were much lower and increasing slowly. In 2010, this changed; over the next four years, heroin death rates increased by a factor of four while [prescription] opioid death rates remained fairly flat." In fact, the researchers "date the changes precisely to the month following the reformulation of OxyContin." Overall overdose deaths rose dramatically from that point on.

In other words, much of today's "opioid crisis" and the ensuing overdoses are an unintended consequence of a well-meaning attempt to prevent the abuse of safer prescription opioids.

Getting out of this situation will not be easy. Instead of trying to cut off the supply of street drugs, one harm reduction strategy would be to make prescription opioids more, not less, available to folks who are already dependent. Overdose deaths would likely fall when users know what dosages they are getting, unlike when they use heroin and fentanyl purchased on the street.

For more background on how to handle the "opioid crisis," read the insightful reporting of my Reason colleague Mike Riggs here and here.