Health

Opioid overdoses reducing overall U.S. life expectancy

No comparable information available for Canada

December 21, 2017

A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in May, where individuals were arrested during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

U.S. deaths from drug overdoses skyrocketed 21 per cent last year, and for the second straight year dragged down how long Americans are expected to live.

The government figures released Thursday put drug deaths at 63,600, up from about 52,000 in 2015. For the first time, the powerful painkiller fentanyl and its close opioid cousins played a bigger role in the deaths than any other legal or illegal drug, surpassing prescription pain pills and heroin.

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"This is urgent and deadly," said Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The opioid epidemic "clearly has a huge impact on our entire society."

Two-thirds of last year's drug deaths in the U.S. — about 42,000 — involved opioids, a category that includes heroin, methadone, prescription pain pills like OxyContin, and fentanyl.

No Canadian data

No official data appear to be available on whether the opioid crisis in Canada is affecting life expectancy. CBC News asked Statistics Canada and Health Canada for information on Thursday, and both referred the inquiries to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). 

CIHI confirmed to CBC News in an email that it did not have data on the impact of opioid deaths on life expectancy in Canada and had "no plans at this time" to conduct that analysis.   

More than 2,860 people died from opioid-related causes in Canada in 2016 and the Public Health Agency of Canada is expecting that number to jump to 4,000 for 2017. The population of the U.S. is about 10 times larger than Canada's.

In the U.S., fatal overdoses that involved fentanyl and fentanyl-like drugs doubled in one year, to more than 19,000, mostly from illegally made pills or powder, which is often mixed with heroin or other drugs.

Heroin was tied to 15,500 deaths and prescription painkillers to 14,500 deaths. The balance of the overdose deaths involved sedatives, cocaine and methamphetamines. More than one drug is often involved in an overdose death.

The highest drug death rates were in ages 25 to 54.

Preliminary 2017 figures show the rise in overdose deaths continuing.

The drug deaths weigh into CDC's annual calculation of the average time a person is expected to live. The life expectancy figure is based on the year of their birth, current death trends and other factors. For decades, it was on the upswing, rising a few months nearly every year. But last year marked the first time in more than a half century that U.S. life expectancy fell two consecutive years.

'No end in sight'

A baby born last year in the U.S. is expected to live about 78 years and seven months, on average, the CDC said. An American born in 2015 was expected to live about a month longer and one born in 2014 about two months longer than that.

The life expectancy dip in 2015 was blamed on drug deaths and an unusual upturn in the death rate for the nation's leading killer, heart disease. Typically, life expectancy goes back up after a one-year decline, said Robert Anderson, who oversees the CDC's death statistics. The last time there was a two-year drop was 1962-1963. It also happened twice in the 1920s.

"If we don't get a handle on this," he said, "we could very well see a third year in a row. With no end in sight."

A three-year decline happened in 1916, 1917 and 1918, which included the worst flu pandemic in modern history.

Overall, there were more than 2.7 million U.S. deaths in 2016, or about 32,000 more than the previous year. It was the most deaths in a single year since the government has been counting. That partly reflects the nation's growing and aging population. But death rates last year continued to go down for people who are 65 and older while going up for all younger adults — those most affected by the opioid epidemic.

In Canada, average life expectancy has been higher than in the U.S. A baby born in Canada in 2014 (the latest year available from Statistics Canada) was expected to live to about 81 years and nine months.  

With files from Nicole Ireland
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