What’s Really Causing the Decline in US Life Expectancy? It’s Not Opioid Overdoses.

From the Washington Post:

For the second year in a row, life expectancy in the United States has dropped. It is not hard to understand why: In 2016, there was a 21 percent rise in the number of deaths caused by drug overdoses, with opioids causing two-thirds of them. Last year, the opioid epidemic killed 42,000 people, more than died of AIDS in any year at the height of the crisis.

In 2016, according to the CDC, 2.7 million people died in America. An extra 7,000 deaths from drug overdoses is a tragedy, but surely it’s not enough to move the needle on life expectancy? Besides, opioids are supposedly the “white” drug, and the age-adjusted death rate for whites was down in 2016. It’s the death rate of blacks that went up, especially black men.

This made me curious, so I looked around to see where this meme came from:

Here’s the abstract from a JAMA report: “Specific contributions of drug, opioid, and alcohol poisonings to changes in US life expectancy since 2000 are unknown.Here’s a Scientific American synopsis of CDC data:While the authors didn’t draw a direct link, another report also released Thursday by the CDC found an estimated 63,600 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016.” According to this chart, about 11,000 more whites died from opioid overdoses last year compared to 2015, but the white death rate went down. Obviously that didn’t contribute to lower life expectancy. Only about 1,200 additional blacks died of opioid overdoses, and that’s definitely not enough to move the needle on overall life expectancy.

Maybe I’m missing something in the subtleties of how death rates correspond to life expectancies, but the change in life expectancy seems like it’s being driven by blacks, especially black men. And the number of opioid overdoses among blacks is too small to impact the overall national life expectancy more than a hair. There’s something else going on, but what?


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Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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