Life expectancy drops must be reversed

— Winston-Salem Journal


It’s a sobering topic to consider, but an important one: American mortality rates are rising, along with overdose and suicide rates, according to three new government studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We must devote our medical and government resources to turn this disturbing trend.

Overall life expectancy has dropped for three years in a row, the longest-running decline in U.S. history since World War I, during which a flu pandemic killed almost 700,000 people nationwide between 1915 and 1918, The Associated Press reported.

“I think this is a very dismal picture of health in the United States,” Joshua M. Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Washington Post. “Life expectancy is improving in many places in the world. It shouldn’t be declining in the United States.”

The CDC issues its health statistics report each December. The 2017 report is the third in a row to show a decline in life expectancy. The primary group that saw jumps in their death rates were white Americans — a 0.6 percent jump for white males and 0.9 perecent for white females.

And while the 10 leading causes of death remained the same, with heart disease and cancer at the top of the list, one of the CDC reports revealed that the rate of drug overdoses jumped 9.6 percent between 2016 and 2017, totaling 70,237 deaths last year. Another report found the rate of suicide climbing, particularly among rural Americans.

Between 1999 and 2017, the national suicide rate increased by 33 percent, with rates in rural areas almost twice as high as those in urban areas.

It’s the rural areas that have been hit the hardest by economic changes in America over the last few decades, leaving a trail of poverty and despair that feeds the opioid crisis that has been such a scourge. It’s all intertwined.

Some progress has been made. Fewer people used heroin for the first time in 2017 than the previous year, according to figures from a U.S. government survey released earlier this year. There was also a decrease in the use of prescription painkillers and more people receiving treatment for drug addictions. This may reflect a small impact from recent efforts to keep legal painkillers off the streets, Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the Center for Health Statistics, told the AP. Other programs that may have helped include making the overdose antidote, naloxone, more widely available. And states that have expanded their Medicaid programs are also able to offer more treatment for users.

But it’s not enough. More efforts are needed.

There are solutions, according to Sharfstein, that are known to policymakers, such as medically assisted treatment for drug abusers and increased availability of mental health services in states where they are lacking.

“So the frustration that many of us feel is that there are things that could save many lives,” he said, “and we are failing to make those services available.”

With a new group of legislators coming to Raleigh in January, we hope they’ll stand up and take notice. It may be up to the rest of us to remind them.


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