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Drug Overdoses, Diabetes, and Suicide: Why Americans Are Dying Younger

Americans continue to die younger, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed Thursday with the release of its final U.S. mortality data for 2017.

According to the CDC, average U.S. life expectancy in 2017 was 78.6 years, down from 78.7 years in 2016.

The top ten leading causes of death in America have not changed, however — although in some cases the order of prevalence has. For instance, in 2017 unintentional injuries (which includes drug overdoses) squeaked past chronic lower respiratory diseases. This may provide more grist for the America-is-killing-itself mill, as researchers have called some of the leading causes of death, such as suicide and drug overdoses, diseases of “despair.”

While heart disease and cancer continue to be by far the most likely causes of U.S. fatality, the CDC data are broken down by sub-populations, so they reveal a more nuanced picture. America is indeed killing some of its groups faster than others, including drug users and diabetics, but some groups are making gains. For example, deaths due to cancer are actually declining, and non-Hispanic black females had lower age-adjusted death rates.

This, however, does not mask a worrying historical trend. Since the 1960s, when the U.S. led the world in life expectancy by almost two and a half years, it has made slower gains than most other rich countries. This all but stopped in 2015, when the U.S. appears to have plateaued before beginning to decline. It now ranks 29th among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) nations for life expectancy. Researchers writing in The Lancet predicted earlier this year that China will overtake the United States in life expectancy by 2040.

While the changes may seem small, Bob Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch of the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, told the Wall Street Journal, “in terms of human cost you’ve got a lot of life that’s not being lived.”