Although U.S. life expectancy increased between 2000 and 2015, drug poisoning deaths from opioids stunted those gains, according to a research letter published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
“It takes a significant change in the number of deaths from a specific cause of death to impact overall life expectancy,” Dr. Deborah Dowell, research author and senior medical advisor at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told HuffPost.
“However, it does go along with what we already knew ― opioid overdose death rates increased substantially during this period.”
Overall, life expectancy from birth increased by two years during the study period, from 76.8 years in 2000, to 78.8 years in 2015, largely because of a decline in deaths from heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases and kidney disease.
At the same time, however, unintentional drug and alcohol poisoning deaths shaved 3.5 months off those gains. Of those 3.5 months, 2.5 months of lost life expectancy can be attributed to opioid overdoses.
Those estimates could very well be an underestimation. In as many as a quarter of drug poisoning deaths, a specific drug isn’t recorded, although as the researchers note, this percentage has decreased slightly since 2010.
Life expectancy gains in the U.S. are slowing
More than 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2016, up 22 percent from a year prior, according to provisional data released last month by the CDC. Deadly overdoses now outstrip car accidents, gun homicides and HIV deaths during the peak years of those epidemics.
Based on this data, which won’t be finalized until December, it’s “likely that these deaths contributed to even greater decreases in life expectancy by 2016,” Dowell said.
Equally concerning is that life expectancy gains in the United States have slowed, especially compared to other high-income countries. According to a study published online in the Lancet in February, the U.S., along with Japan, Sweden, Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, has the lowest projected life expectancy gains among the 35 industrialized nations the study analyzed.
Addressing the opioid epidemic head on ― by stopping opioid addiction before it starts, improving prescribing practices and ensuring that those who are already addicted get appropriate treatment ― could help reverse that trend.
“Preventing opioid-related overdose deaths will be important to achieving more robust increases in life expectancy once again,” Dowell said.