The Depressing Reason Why Our Life Expectancy Continues to Decline

American life expectancy has fallen again. According to newly released data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people in the U.S. can now expect to live until 78.6 years of age–down from 78.7 years in 2016.

The 10 leading causes of death remained the same as 2016–heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide–but increases in deaths due to drug overdoses and suicide may be driving the overall decline.

“Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide,” CDC director Robert R. Redfield, MD, said in a statement. “Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the nation’s overall health, and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

Suicides increased by 3.7% in 2017 compared to 2016, and drug overdoses by 9.6%.

In 2017, more than 70,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, a number that’s been increasing since 1999, according to the new data. Then, there were 8.2 drug overdose deaths among men per every 100,000 people and 3.9 for women. Today, those rates have risen to 29.1 and 14.4, respectively. Adults between the ages of 25 and 54 had higher rates of deaths due to drug overdose than younger or older people, and West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania were hit particularly hard.

Suicide rates have also been steadily increasing since 1999–up 33% today, in fact. Particularly troubling is the fact that those rates have been increasing more quickly among women. From 1999 to 2017, suicide rates among boys and men increased by 26% while rates for girls and women increased by 53%. (Similar findings were published earlier this year by the National Center for Health Statistics.)

Experts aren’t entirely sure what’s driving this trend but cite financial problems, the current hostile political climate, and a general sense of hopelessness. Women may also face additional societal pressures that increase their risk of dying by suicide, including harassment in the work place, Dolores Cimini, PhD, psychologist and director of the Center for Behavioral Health Promotion and Applied Research at the University of Albany, said in a prior interview. Plus, she added, the persistent stigma surrounding asking for help keeps many people–women and men alike–from seeking out mental health care.

“CDC is committed to putting science into action to protect U.S. health, but we must all work together to reverse this trend and help ensure that all Americans live longer and healthier lives,” Dr. Redfield said.

For starters, that might mean talking about drug overdoses and suicide safely and respectfully (here’s how to do so). “We must address suicide as a public health issue, as we do with other leading causes of death such as cancer and HIV/AIDS,” chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Christine Moutier, MD, said in an email statement.

“Suicide is preventable,” Dr. Moutier continued. “As a nation, we must take action by making a major investment in suicide research, translating that research into treatment and early interventions for mental health, and further educating the public on the warning signs of suicide.” Those can include expressing thoughts about harming themselves, increasing their drinking or drug use, or dealing with feelings of guilt, anxiety, or depression.

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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