Life Expectancy Drops Again As Opioid Deaths Surge In U.S.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The federal government has just released the latest statistics on life expectancy in the United States, and the news isn't good. In fact, it's pretty grim. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has details.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: For decades, America was a place where each generation tended to do better than the one before it. Many parents watched their children grow up to be richer, better educated, healthier, and Robert Anderson of the National Center for Health Statistics says, for the most part, live longer.
ROBERT ANDERSON: Life expectancy measures sort of the overall status of a population, and it gives you sort of an overall sense of what's going on. And life expectancy's been increasing pretty steadily since 1950.
STEIN: But not anymore. Life expectancy dropped in 2016 again. That means it's now fallen for two years in a row.
ANDERSON: Any decline in life expectancy is pretty significant - doesn't happen very often.
STEIN: The last time was 1993 because of the AIDS epidemic. And life expectancy hasn't dropped two years in a row since the early 1960s.
ANDERSON: Prior to the '60s, you know, you have to go back to the 1920s to see life expectancy decline in two years in a row.
STEIN: But from 2014 to 2016, life expectancy fell from 78.9 years to 78.6.
ANDERSON: For any individual, that's not a whole lot. But when you're talking about it in terms of a population, you're talking about a significant number of potential lives that aren't being lived.
STEIN: So why is this happening? A big reason is the opioid epidemic. Another new report out today shows that more than 63,000 Americans died from overdoses in 2016 alone.
ANDERSON: It's just really dramatically increased. The increase from 2015 to 2016 is far and above greater than any of the one-year increases that we've seen to this point.
STEIN: Which means that not only is the opioid epidemic bad and not getting any better, it's actually getting worse. It's accelerating.
ANDERSON: I think we should be really alarmed. I mean, I'm not prone to dramatic statements, but the drug overdose issue I think is a public health crisis, and it really needs to be addressed. We need to get a handle on it.
STEIN: Other experts agree.
ARUN HENDI: I was pretty shocked to see that our life expectancy has declined for the second year in a row.
STEIN: That's Arun Hendi of the University of Southern California.
HENDI: I think we should be very worried. We need to cut off the supply of drugs flooding the market, particularly heroin and fentanyl. Second, we need to provide better treatment and more resources for people in those areas that are most affected by the drug overdose epidemic. And third, we need to improve access to high-quality health care.
STEIN: But some experts say the opioid epidemic is just part of a larger problem. Anne Case is a researcher at Princeton who's been studying what she calls deaths of despair.
ANNE CASE: It's also a crisis in which people are killing themselves in much larger numbers - whites especially - and where deaths from alcohol have been rising, as well. So we think of it all being signs that something is really wrong. And whatever it is that's really wrong is happening nationwide.
STEIN: And whatever's happening nationwide may be a sense of frustration and hopelessness about crummy jobs with no raises, security or decent benefits and everything that comes with that.
CASE: They don't have a good job. They don't have a marriage that supports them. They may have children that they do or don't see. They have a much more fragile existence than they would've had a generation ago. It may be that the deaths from drugs, from suicide, from alcohol are related to the fact that people don't have stability and a hope for the future that they might have had in the past.
STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News.
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