But there are sinister trends lurking beneath this slight ray of good news that we cannot ignore. Senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway has already claimed the CDC report as an achievement of the Trump administration, but we can’t let those responsible for protecting the nation’s health off the hook. The real message from the CDC’s report should be that life expectancy has risen despite the Trump administration’s health-care policies. We should be demanding so much more from our government.
Of course, it’s entirely warranted to celebrate the improvements in lifespan that are due to science. Thanks to new treatments and decades-long efforts to educate the public about the harms of smoking, the United States is witnessing its greatest drop in cancer deaths in history. We’ve also lowered death rates from heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and chronic lower respiratory disease.
We can also cheer a slight fall in “unintentional injuries” — the category of deaths in which the horrors of our opioid epidemic reside. For the first time in 30 years, the CDC confirmed, deaths due to drug overdoses fell from 70,237 in 2017 to 67,367 in 2018. That’s mostly because of the reduction in heroin overdoses over the past few years, aided in large part by the effort to distribute naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, across the nation.
But that’s where the good news ends. While heroin’s toll seems to be subsiding, its far more ruthless cousin, fentanyl, presses onward. The CDC report shows that fentanyl’s victims continue to flood our morgues, with a body count that increased by 10 percent in 2018. Victims of cocaine and methamphetamine — which are often laced with fentanyl — are surging, as well. The addiction crisis remains so bad that health experts worry the decline in overdose deaths won’t persist in coming years.
And where is the Trump administration? The White House places the opioid crisis as a priority on its website, up there with the “economy” and “national security.” But that consideration doesn’t extend far beyond the whitehouse.gov domain. The administration has scraped together only $6 billion so far to address the crisis, far less than the tens of billions of dollars experts say are needed. In fact, the administration even forgot to renew its own public-health emergency declaration on opioid deaths earlier this month.
And of course, the administration has gone out of its way to try to undermine Medicaid, the health-care program that research shows can prevent overdose deaths by expanding access to addiction treatment. After failing to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion, the administration crafted new rules allowing states to hamper the program, first through work requirements and, more recently, through schemes to set up Medicaid block grants.
There’s another persistent source of deaths worth highlighting: guns. You won’t find the word anywhere in the CDC report, but it's there if you look hard enough. The report shows that suicide rates ticked up slightly in 2018, and more than half of all suicides are caused by firearms. Add in all other gun-related deaths, and we get a total of around 40,000 deaths, disproportionately affecting young people and dragging down life expectancy as a result.
Again, where is the Trump administration on this? Certainly, its efforts to roll back health-care coverage don’t help our suicide epidemic. But its opposition to all sensible gun reforms, including safe storage requirements and waiting periods that could help prevent people from taking their own lives, is just as damning.
That shiny, tenth-of-a-year increase in life expectancy obscures as much as it reveals. Look beneath that number, and you will find a society still haunted by depression and addiction. These are stubborn phenomena that deserve more than just acknowledgment; they require a sense of nationwide mission that elevates them to levels never before seen in our government.
After all, each human life is measured in more than a single number.