By Sy Mukherjee
November 3, 2017

Good news: Deaths from cancer and heart disease—by far the two biggest killers of Americans—are on the decline, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as are those related to HIV. But further analysis released by the public health agency Friday highlight two alarming trends for U.S. mortality: significant rises in gun and, especially, drug overdose deaths (with the latter driven by the ongoing opioid crisis in America).

Despite the drop in heart disease and cancer deaths, the overall death rate in the U.S. actually rose in in the year ending mid-2017 compared to a comparable period the previous year. One key factor contributing to the trend is the major spike in fatalities related to drugs, including prescription painkillers containing addictive opioids (like oxycodone and fentanyl) and illegal drugs like heroin; another is the second straight year that gun deaths have risen after 15 years of remaining relatively stable. While the vast majority of firearms fatalities are still suicides, which make up about two-thirds of gun deaths, gun homicides ballooned from 9,600 in 2015 to 11,000 in 2016 due to increased gun violence in Chicago and certain other cities, according to the CDC.

It’s possible that latter trend could reverse itself, and firearms fatalities still haven’t reached the levels they were at in the 1990s. The rise of drug-related deaths is far more concerning to public health experts. And the new CDC reports may not fully encapsulate just how much drug overdoses and the opioid epidemic are driving death rates because the data on that particular issue is only available through the last quarter of 2016.

The arc, however, is eye-opening. Between the last three months of 2015 and the same time period in 2016, drug overdoses deaths rose from 16.3 out of every 100,000 Americans to 19.8 out of every 100,000 Americans. That’s a startling rise for a single cause of death within just one year. Drug overdoses killed more than 60,000 people in 2016 and the spread of powerful opioids like fentanyl has terrified law enforcement and the medical community alike in recent years. (It should be noted that other major causes of deaths in America include lung disease, car accidents, and Alzheimer’s.)

Last year, the CDC found that U.S. life expectancy had actually dropped for the first time in more than two decades to an average of 78.8 years and that every major leading cause of death other than cancer was killing more people. The recently released update to the Global Burden of Disease project pinpointed poor diet as one of the major factors driving premature deaths across the world.

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