Canadians' average life expectancy could be cut by opioid scourge

Canada will soon find out whether the deadly opioid crisis is having an impact on how long people are expected to live on average.

Canada to start factoring opioid-related overdoses into average life expectancies

An anti-fentanyl advertisment is displayed on a sidewalk in downtown Vancouver in April. New government figures show that nearly 4,000 Canadians died from apparent opioid overdoses last year, with men the most likely victims and fentanyl the clear culprit. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Canada will soon find out whether the deadly opioid crisis is having an impact on how long people are expected to live on average.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says it will start factoring opioid-related overdoses into its average life expectancy calculations, a trend the U.S. has been watching for years now.

Life expectancy is one way to measure the country's general well being. It can be affected by things like lifestyle, diet, access to health care, education, income and rates of diseases.

"Now that more opioid-related mortality data are available at the national level, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) plans to undertake a robust life expectancy analysis in the coming months," Rebecca Purdy, the federal agency's spokesperson, said in an email to CBC.

"Life expectancy calculations are complex, but can provide a valuable measure that can help contextualize the effects of a health event on a population."

Life expectancy has risen significantly in the past few years. A baby born in 2017 is expected to live 82 years, according to the latest Statistics Canada figures. It was an average of 77 years for both sexes in 1990.

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(The current situation is different for the Inuit community: 64 years for men and 73 years for women.)

But those who watch the opioid epidemic closely say they expect the figures to dip once the rise in overdoses is factored in.

An 'important step'

Recent figures showed that nearly 4,000 Canadians died from apparent opioid overdose in 2017, up from about 3,000 in 2016. Men were the most likely victims, and fentanyl was almost entirely to blame.

The number of apparent opioid-related deaths among 30-39 year olds in 2017 was greater than the number of deaths due to any of the other leading causes of death for that age group in 2015.

Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health, called the Public Health Agency of Canada's decision "an important step."

The numbers for apparent opioid-related fatalities show a national death rate of 10.9 for every 100,000 people in the population in 2017, up from 8.2 in 2016. (CBC/Government of Canada)

"I think we will likely see a similar impact on Canada as has been identified in the U.S., and to me this will just help raise the dialogue and help people appreciate the substantive impacts that our current substance use climate or environment in Canada is having," said Strang.

"Which should lead us to say, why is that going on and what can we do about it?"

Don Voaklander, a professor with the University of Alberta's school of public health, also predicts a decrease in life expectancy.

"What it says about our country is that there is something happening that is lowering our life expectancy from birth," he said.

The U.S., which is experiencing a similar drug epidemic, saw its overall life expectancy pulled down for the second year in a row in 2016.

The last time the U.S. life expectancy dropped was in the early 1990s during the AIDS epidemic.

Bob Anderson, the head of the mortality statistics branch within the United States' National Center for Health Statistics, said he thinks the public release of the updated figures have changed the conversation around drug overdoses in the U.S.

"It really puts a spotlight on the problem. As a developed nation, we ought to be seeing increasing life expectancy over time, not decreasing life expectancy over time," he said. 

Researchers in British Columbia, where the crisis has arguably hit the hardest in Canada, have also examined the links between drug overdoses and life expectancy.

Shorter life expectancy in B.C.

Before the onslaught of the opioid epidemic B.C. had been experiencing a boost in its annual life expectancy figures, but it decreased from 83.02 years in 2014 to 82.64 in 2016.

A report from the Office of the Provincial Health Officer and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control  attributed a part of that to fatal drug overdoses.

"This is an indicator of the overall health of a population and when the overall health of a population is being affected it really does help to underscore the gravity of the situation,"said Dr. Brian Emerson, a medical consultant with the province.

He said it's too early to speculate on the national impact, but pointed out it's no secret people outside of B.C. are dying from opioids and fentanyl. 

Purdy said the results of the life expectancy analysis will be made available once they're finished.