Drug Deaths, Suicide, and a Three-Year Drop in Life Expectancy—What Does It Mean?

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One of the most telling indicators of the overall health of a nation’s population is its life expectancy. When a population’s life expectancy improves, this is a sign of overall improvement for that country. When a country’s life expectancy falls, especially after a period of steady growth in life expectancy, that is something to be worried about.

But what about when a country’s life expectancy falls for three consecutive years in a row? That’s precisely what has occurred in the United States. To say that it is a cause for concern would be something of an understatement.

What is causing this ongoing drop in life expectancy? What is bringing this about in one of the most powerful and most medically advanced countries in the world?

Details of the Decline

The year 2017 marked the third year in a row where the average life expectancy of American residents declined or stayed the same. This means that in 2015, 2016, and 2017 Americans were living progressively shorter and shorter lives. According to a comprehensive report in Time, health experts say that drug overdoses and suicides (both of which often go hand-in-hand) are much to blame for this gradual recession in life expectancy.

Let’s look at the exact numbers on this. According to the Time article, in 2016, the average American could expect to live to be 78.7 years old. But in 2017, the average American could expect to live to the age of 78.6 years old. One-tenth of a year lost in life expectancy from 2016 to 2017 might not seem like much, but extrapolate that over the entire population and compare it to decades of steady growth in life expectancy and the shift is significant.

And it's not just the 2016 to 2017 decline in life expectancy that we are concerned about. This recent decline marks 2017 as the third year in a row where life expectancies have either declined or stayed the same. After decades of steady growth in American life expectancy, what is now causing the incipient decline?

Person in a chair has dropped prescription drugs.

The best way to determine what has caused the drop in life expectancy is to look at which causes of death are on their way up. According to the Time article cited above, deaths by suicide were up 3.7 percent from 2016 to 2017. In 2017, suicides accounted for 14 deaths for every 100,000 Americans.

Deaths by drug overdose are even worse. Looking at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further information, deaths from drug overdoses increased by 9.6 percent from 2016 to 2017. That’s almost three times greater an increase than the percentage increase in suicide deaths.

In 2016, about 19.8 individuals died from drug overdoses in the U.S. for every 100,000 population. In 2017, 21.7 individuals died from drug overdoses for every 100,000 people. Just to put the fatalistic nature of the drug problem into perspective, no less than 70,237 people died from drug overdose deaths in 2017.

Deaths from cancer and heart disease are on their way down. But deaths from suicide and drug overdoses are rising so fast that they are overshadowing the progress in the decline in deaths from heart disease and cancer.

So here we have a silver lining and a sobering reminder all in one. The American medical system is getting better at addressing the causes of death that have been plaguing us for some time, i.e., cancer and heart disease. But now we have a relatively new problem on the horizon, i.e., the rapid growth in suicides and fatal drug overdoses.

We should also keep in mind that suicides and drug overdoses often go hand-in-hand. This is to say that, when an individual commits suicide, they often do so by using a fatal dose of drugs. In a way, the growing suicide problem and the ever-increasing drug problem are often one and the same.

It’s crucial to comprehend just how severe the drug problem is. We are talking about a drug crisis that has become so mainstream and so lethal that it is lowering American life expectancy. We're talking about an issue that is no longer an “on the sidelines” health problem that only affects a few thousand people per year. It is now a problem that affects all of us, in some way or another.

What Can We Do About It?

Though the drug problem is concerning and certainly worrisome, we know precisely how to correct the growing crisis. The drug addiction epidemic is not an unknown calamity with no clear resolution. The key to resolving drug addiction and to reversing the gradual increase in overdose deaths is by helping those who are addicted get into and through residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers.

Someone who struggles with a drug habit is afflicted with a condition that is next to impossible to break free from on his own. Drug users need professional help to arrest their own drug-created decline, a decline that, as recent statistics show, often ends in death.

One could say that drug users are living on borrowed time which is used up rather quickly if they do not seek help from residential drug rehabs. Every instance of drug use could prove to be fatal for an addict. Furthermore, addicts are at risk for all kinds of other dangers, such as car accidents, drug-related crime, gang violence, falls, recklessness, and even ancillary health problems created from or exacerbated by drug use. If the dwindling spiral of drug use is not halted, one’s odds of experiencing such a crisis become even more likely.

If You Know Someone Who Is Addicted to Drugs and Alcohol…

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Do you know someone who is struggling with drug and alcohol addiction? If you do, you should do your absolute best to get them into and through a residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment center. Such centers offer safety and security. They offer the best possible environment and the best chance that any addict has for breaking free from the many ties and trappings of a drug habit.

When someone is trying to overcome a drug problem, they must address the physical, psychological, behavioral, and spiritual aspects of the drug problem that together comprise a drug addiction. Only residential treatment centers have the tools to do this effectively. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, make sure they get help before it is too late.




Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.