U.S. Life Expectancy Grows as Drug Deaths Declined in 2018

For the first time in 4 years, U.S. life expectancy increased in 2018, following a decline primarily driven by drug overdoses.

The increase in life expectancy created by this decline was slight, raising it to 78.7 years from 78.6 the year before. “It’s good news, but we don’t know yet if it’s the beginning of a new trend,” said Elizabeth Arias, a demographer at the National Center for Health Statistics. American life expectancy peaked at 78.9 years in 2014.

But, from 2015 to 2017, life expectancy decreased, largely due to the opioid epidemic’s death toll. More young people have been dying from overdoses, suicide, and alcoholism, but in 2018, the U.S. saw fewer drug deaths for the first time in 28 years. Overdose deaths dropped 4.1%, from 70,237 in 2017 to 67,367 in 2018. Overall drug overdose death rates dropped in 14 states, increased in five states, and stagnated in the rest. The states where rates increased were California, Delaware, Missouri, New Jersey, and South Carolina.

However, it is unclear how strong this trend is – or how long it will last. For example, the fentanyl death rate rose 10% in 2018.

Other factors negatively affecting life expectancy include rising mortality due to pneumonia, influenza, suicide, and nutritional deficiencies.

The U.S. falls far behind most wealthy, developed countries with a life expectancy about equal to that of Portugal, a much poorer country, and shorter than in Costa Rica, Cuba, and Slovenia.

Source: The New York Times, January 30, 2020.