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U.S. life expectancy is declining

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A century ago, the life expectancy at birth in the United States was 55 years. Today, a person born in the United States can expect to live past age 78. These extra years of life are one of the most consequential developments in the history of our country.

Unfortunately, for the second time in three years, the average life expectancy in the United States has declined — the first time this has happened since the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. In 2014, the average life expectancy was 78.9 years. Just one year later, life expectancy declined to 78.7 years. While life expectancy remained unchanged between 2015 and 2016, it fell again between 2016 and 2017 to the current 78.6 years.

Source: CDC

While these declines in life expectancy are small, the primary causes are troubling. Unlike the deadly influenza pandemic that raged in 1919, killing some 675,000 Americans, Center for Disease Control (CDC) data shows that we are now losing too many Americans to preventable deaths.

Drug overdose death rates increased across all age groups, with the highest rate of increase occurring in adults ages 35–44. Notably, there was a sharp increase between 2016 and 2017 in drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone. The rate of overdose deaths from drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol shot up to 45 percent during that period. For other opioids, drug overdose death rates remained unchanged.

Suicide is another factor contributing to declines in life expectancy. Since 2008, suicide has ranked as one of the 10 leading causes of death. During that same period, suicide rates have gradually increased.

These reports paint a bleak picture of a country in which many people are dying by their own hand. Typically, a growing economy leads to a healthier, longer-living population. Instead, these multi-year declines in life expectancy show a rising national health crisis that policymakers must address.