The Overdose Epidemic and the “Astounding” Life Expectancy Drop

New data shows a decrease in life expectancy in the United States. Here’s why.

For the second year in a row, life expectancy in the United States has dropped.1 In 2020, the US experienced the largest drop life expectancy since World War II: 1.8 years.2 Now, life expectancy is yet another year lower, and declines in all individual 50 states. Declines differed significantly amongst race/ethnic groups.

Although COVID-19 obviously played a huge role in this decline, with states hardest impacted by COVID suffering larger declines, the picture is more complicated than that.

Robert Anderson, NCHS Mortality Statistics Chief, when asked about other leading causes of death that contributed to this decline, stated, “The main one is unintentional injuries, and this is mostly drug overdoses. There are some other causes that are grouped with unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle accidents and falls. But what really stands out in terms of sort of increasing mortality, and which is responsible for the decline in life expectancy, would be the drug overdose deaths. It’s second to COVID-19 in terms of its impact.”

Anderson noted that it is difficult to say whether individual overdose cases are related to pandemic stress; however, there was a flattening and even a slightly declining rate of drug overdose deaths prior to the pandemic. Now, in the wake of COVID-19, there is a steep increase in overdose deaths, with ‘unintentional injuries’ accounting for 15.9% of mortality increases. According to the NCHS data on drug overdose deaths, during the year-long period ending in March of 2022, over 109,000 overdose deaths occurred.3

American Indians were amongst the race/ethnic groups most affected with a 1.9-year decline in life expectancy. “For the American Indian population, the decline was 6.6 years from 2019 to 2021. That’s just astounding,” said Anderson.2 “For the Hispanic population it was a 4.2-year decline; for the black population about a 4-year decline; for the white population 2.4 years; and for the Asian population 2.1 years.”

Read more about the overdose epidemic: “The AMA’s 7 Recommendations for Reducing the Opioid Crisis,” “A Whirlwind Tour of OUD Treatment Strategies,” and “The Opioid Epidemic Is Alive—And Unwell.”

References

1. Arias E, Tejada-Vera B, Kochanek KD, Ahmad FB. Provisional life expectancy estimates for 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 2022. Accessed September 1, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsrr/vsrr023.pdf

2. Life expectancy fell in 2021 for the second year in a row: interview with NCHS Mortality Statistics Chief Robert Anderson. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 31, 2022. Accessed September 1, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/podcasts/2022/20220831/20220831.htm

3. Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed September 1, 2022. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/drug-overdose-data.htm