Americans' Life Expectancies Are Getting Shorter — But There's Hope

“The drugs that people are taking now are more deadly.”

For the first time since 1963, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped for a second straight year, falling from 78.9 in 2014 to 78.7 in 2015 to 78.6 in 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics reports. 

The problem in the 1960s was cancer and heart disease tied to cigarette use. Now, the country's opioid crisis is to blame.

Granted, heart disease and cancer are still the top two causes of American deaths — but "unintentional injuries," including overdoses, surpassed chronic lower respiratory diseases to rank third in 2016. That rise in the ranks is due to a 21 percent increase in fatal overdoses, which claimed the lives of 63,600 Americans last year, as BuzzFeed News reports.

"The drugs that people are taking now are more deadly," Richard Frank, a health economist at Harvard Medical School, told BuzzFeed News. Whereas prescription painkillers were the leading culprits earlier in the 2010s, now illicit fentanyl joins heroin as the causes of more than half of all fatal overdoses.

Elderly Americans are actually living longer, thanks to medical advantages, as BuzzFeed News reports, but the average is still dropping because fatal overdoses are becoming more common among younger and middle-aged adults.

Though opioid death rates have indeed increased among white communities in rural areas, it's also increasing among black men, black women, and Hispanic men in urban areas, particularly as street drugs are often tainted with fentanyl.

"It's great if we have a kinder, gentler war on drugs that leads to better drug policies because of all the concern about white people," Kathie Kane-Willis of the Chicago Urban League told BuzzFeed News. "But It's people of color who are increasingly dying due to fentanyl."

Still, all hope is not lost, especially as the opioid crisis gains more visibility. President Trump declared the crisis a national emergency in August, for example, and vowed the government would spend time and money focusing on solutions. 

"There's no doubt that this shines a brighter light on the epidemic. It remains to be seen how much this will fundamentally change its course," Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, told The Washington Post in light of the declaration. "No one thinks the recovery from this is going to be fast, emergency or not."

Alexander did express concern, though, that any extra budget allocated to the crisis might be used to "clamp down harder" on people struggling with opioid addictions. "We're not going to arrest our way out of this epidemic," he added.

Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, explained to the Post the emergency declaration could perhaps get U.S. Public Health Service physicians to areas in need or could enable the DEA to require prescriber education for anyone who dispenses opioids. "There's a lot that could be done. It could be very helpful, much more than just symbolic," he told the newspaper.

Even before that declaration, some communities were taking drastic action of their own accord. After the city of Worcester, MA, saw nine opioid-related deaths over six days, local service providers and substance abuse advocates met at a town hall meeting to devise a game plan. Now the city now offers public education and awareness programs, as well as drop-off kiosks for unwanted prescription medications, as ICMA reports.

Individuals are also coming up with ideas. Earlier this year, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine instructor Margaret Danilovich wrote an op-ed for The Hill saying the opioid crisis could be mitigated if people had better access to physical therapists. "Physical therapists are the most well trained health care provider to address pain and prevent unnecessary opioid use, but unfortunately, are often under-referred and underutilized," she wrote.

Additionally, in Arizona — where two people died every day from opioid-related overdoses in 2016 — volunteers run one of the state's only syringe exchange programs. Their program, Shot in the Dark, operates without public funding and provides clean needles to reduce the harm of drug use without forcing abstinence. "It's really low-barrier the way we are doing it," volunteer George Patterson told NPR. "All you have to do is find us."

In short, the opioid problem is monumental, and the proposed solutions are many. Perhaps now that the crisis is a national emergency — and one that is statistically shown to affect Americans' lifespans — we as a society will come up with a unified, effective, and unimpeded response.

Cover image via Tomas Nevesely / Shutterstock. 

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