The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion America is losing ground to death and despair

Erika Marble visits the gravesite of Edward Martin III, her fiance and the father of her two children, in Littleton, N.H., in 2016. The 28-year old died in 2014 of an overdose of the opioid fentanyl. (Jim Cole/AP)

LIFE EXPECTANCY statistics are a significant barometer of a society’s health. They’re an indicator — a signal — of how the population is weathering all kinds of difficulty, from wars to disease to disasters, natural and man-made. For decades, life expectancy in the United States has been rising, as in other developed nations, a positive sign. But the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are alarming. Life expectancy overall in the United States fell for the second time in three years in 2017, driven largely by a surge in drug overdoses and suicide.

The data shifts, while seemingly small, are unusual, a sustained decline in expected life span at birth not seen in the United States since the years of World War I and the 1918 flu pandemic. Robert Anderson, the chief of mortality statistics at the CDC, correctly observed: “The idea that a developed wealthy nation like ours has declining life expectancy just doesn’t seem right.” Something is wrong, and it is not a mystery. The United States is in the throes of a drug overdose crisis, while suicide rates are climbing — twin tragedies that, as CDC Director Robert Redfield put it, should be “a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable.”

In 2017, the rate of drug overdose deaths in the United States was 9.6 percent higher than in 2016. There were 70,237 drug overdose deaths, or 21.7 per 100,000 people, compared with 6.1 in 1999. Especially worrisome, drug overdose deaths surged 16 percent from 2014 to 2017. The deaths are being driven by synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, sold on the street, often combined with heroin or cocaine, with or without the users’ knowledge.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and has legitimate uses in medicine, but most of the overdoses and deaths are coming from illegally manufactured fentanyl, sold for its heroin-like effects. Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids other than methadone skyrocketed 71 percent per year from 2013 to 2017, the CDC reports. A smidgen of good news was confirmed in the new data: The opioid prescription drug crisis seems to be responding to attempts to get it under control; the number of those deaths did not increase from 2016 to 2017.

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President Trump and Congress have both expressed determination to address the opioid crisis, calling it a national emergency. But the picture described in the annual CDC report is of a nation that is failing to cope with a scourge in plain sight. Greater efforts must be made to get users fast, unimpeded access to drugs that can reverse overdoses and save lives, and to provide treatment to those who need it. The new data also shows that suicide rates in rural counties of the United States are now nearly double those in the most urban counties. There is absolutely no excuse for these dark corners of death and despair to exist in a nation as developed and wealthy as the United States.

Read more:

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Thomas R. Frieden: U.S. life expectancy is dropping. Here’s how to fix it.