The United States just posted its first increase in life expectancy since 2014, thanks in part to a more than 4 percent decline in drug overdose deaths — the first such fall in more than 20 years.
This news comes from data out of the National Vital Statistics System, as published by the National Center for Health Statistics. The research was conducted by Drs. Holly Hedegaard and Margaret Warner, along with Arialdi M. Miniño, M.P.H. Their figures tracked drug overdose deaths from 1999-2018.
In 2018, 67,367 people in the United States died of drug overdoses — a decline from the 70,237 deaths reported in 2017. Furthering the downward trend: 14 states and the District of Columbia all saw lower death rates in 2018 than in 2017. This was despite a rise in the rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone — think fentanyl or tramadol — to 10 percent. Cocaine deaths have also skyrocketed, more than tripling from 2012 through 2018, and psychostimulant deaths increased nearly five times.
“In 2018, for the first time in more than two decades, fewer Americans died of drug overdoses than the year before, and for the first time in four years, American life expectancy rose,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said. “This news is a real victory, and it should be a source of encouragement for all Americans who have been committed to connecting people struggling with substance abuse to treatment and recovery. The drop in overdose deaths shows that the President’s new level of focus on the opioid crisis, and the administration’s science- and community-based efforts to combat it, are beginning to make a significant difference. But our work is far from finished, and there are some disturbing trends, such as rising rates of methamphetamine overdoses.”
The data shows that the age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths increased dramatically between 1999 and 2017: the figure was 6.1 deaths per 100,000 in 1999, against 21.7 in 2017. It averaged a 10 percent per year increase from 1999 through 2006, before slowing to 2 percent per year between 2006 and 2013, and then leaping again to 14 percent per year from 2013 through 2016. This has always disproportionately affected males, and as of 2018, rates sat at 27.9 for men and 13.6 for women.
The lessened rate of drug overdose deaths for 2018 was on display in Alaska, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. On the other side, the death rates in California, Delaware, Missouri, New Jersey, and South Carolina all continued to climb. However, West Virginia remained the state with the highest age-adjusted drug overdose death rate, at 51.5 per 100,000 people. South Dakota held the lowest death rate, at 6.9.
Deaths linked to fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, tramadol, cocaine, and psychostimulants all continue to rise, but other areas have seen improvement. The heroin death rate fell between 2017 and 2018, along with drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone, and methadone.
A separate report from the National Center for Health Statistics, likewise posted last month, showed that life expectancy for the U.S. population in 2018 reached 78.7 years, an increase of 0.1 years from 2017, but the first time the figure has risen since 2014.