In 1900, the average person in the US could expect to live just 47.3 years. Throughout the 20th century, that figure climbed rapidly, topping 70 years for the first time in 1961 and reaching 78.9 years in 2014, suggesting 80 was only a matter of time.
Then in 2015, there was a downturn—a small one, to 78.8 years. A single year might be a blip, but the reasons for the increase in death rate (including obesity and drug overdoses) suggested that might not be the case. Data released today by the CDCs National Center for Health Statistics points to a continuing downward trend: life expectancy in 2017 was 78.6 years, down from 78.7 years in 2016.
That dip of 0.1 years, every year for the last three years, is not a huge trend when taken on its own. But it suggests that the decrease in 2015 was more than a blip—and it points to unfolding stories about health and death in the United States. Those small-seeming numbers also translate to meaningful real-world figures: there were 69,255 additional deaths in 2017 compared to 2016.
Two age groups saw increases in death rates: younger adults aged between 25 and 44 years, and people over 85 years old. Death rates decreased for people between 45 and 54 years old. When those death rates were broken down by ethnicity and sex, white people—both men and women—had a statistically significant increase in death rate, although their absolute rates were still lower than those of black men and women.
Heart disease and cancer were still the leading causes of death by a wide margin, killing more than 152 people out of every 100,000 in 2017—although deaths from cancer decreased significantly. But deaths from unintentional injuries were up significantly from 2016. Drug overdoses account for slightly less than half of the deaths in this category.
Data on drug overdoses shows a rapidly accelerating trend—a slower increase from 1999 until 2014, and then a skyrocketing 16 percent per year from 2014 until 2017. The rate more than tripled for both men and women, with a slightly higher increase for women, although the overall death rate was approximately twice as high for men as for women.
That dramatic increase has been driven in large part by drugs like fentanyl and tramadol, which have increased fivefold since 2014. These synthetic opioids account for approximately double the number of deaths caused by natural and semisynthetic opioids like oxycodone and hydrocodone, which saw a leveling off in associated deaths between 2016 and 2017.
The mortality stats also showed an increase in suicides, which have been rising steadily for nearly two decades and have been ranked as the tenth most common cause of death in the US since 2008. Nearly four times as many men died by suicide than women in 2017, but the rate for women has seen a higher rate of increase over the last 18 years. The increase showed up in all age categories except for people over 75, where there was a decrease.
The most striking trend in suicide deaths is their geographic distribution. In 1999, the most urban counties in the US had a suicide rate of 9.6 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2017, that rate had increased by 16 percent, to 11.1 deaths per 100,000. In the most rural counties, however, the 1999 rate of 13.1 per 100,000 had jumped by 53 percent, to 20 per 100,000 in 2017.
There might be one point of hope in the gloomy news. Provisional CDC data suggests that drug overdose deaths may have peaked in 2017, although the change is unevenly distributed across the country. But other problems—including diabetes and pneumonia—don't seem to be reversing course.