Opioid Crisis Reduces Average American Life Expectancy For First Time In Over Two Decades
According to an analysis recently published in the journal JAMA, the opioid epidemic is so bad that it is shortening the average life expectancy of Americans. In fact, opioid use, including both prescription painkillers and illicit drugs such as fentanyl, is reducing our lives by about 2.5 months.
Moreover, in 2015, the life expectancy for Americans fell for the first time in 22 years. Also, researchers also noted that the total amount of opioid overdose fatalities is likely underestimated due to inconsistency in reporting on death certificates.
In the recent past, the U.S. has been on the upper end of countries in terms of expected longevity. However, the country has since fallen behind many other high-income nations, and fatalities from opioid overdose deaths are a key factor in this reversing trend.
Between 1970-2000, the American life expectancy increased by about 2 ½ months per year. If that rate had continued, Americans born in the country since 2015 would have expected to live longer than 79 years.
However, the American life expectancy increase began to slow at around the turn of the century and had halted completely by 2014.
Conversely, between 2009-2015, fatality rates related to diabetes, heart disease, and other common causes fell, which added about two and ¼ years to our life expectancy. However, increasing deaths related to Alzheimer’s disease, suicide, and other factors negated some of that gain.
Americans, on average, can expect to live to 78.8 years of age, according to 2015 data. Statistically, that’s a significant change and reflects a decrease of about one month from the year before.
As per status quo, women are still expected to live longer than men (81.2 years versus 76.3 years) but both of these estimates fell from 2014 to 2015. If you reach age 65, you can reasonably expect you will live another 19.4 years (20.6 years for women versus 18 years for men.)
To determine the cause of the drop in American life expectancy, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined data from death certificates in each state. They determined causes of death, fatality rates, and life expectancy. Of note, they also found that deaths from cancer, heart disease, influenza, kidney disease, lung disease, and strokes had all declined.
But for opioid-related deaths, there appears to be no sign of slowing. The CDC estimates that 64,000 people died in 2016 from overdoses related to opioids. And since 1999, the number of these deaths have more than quadrupled.
In the early stages of the epidemic, prescription opioids were the fuel behind addiction and death. However, prescriptions for painkillers gradually feel in recent years, leaving some who were already opioid-dependent up a creek and without their drug of choice – an unfortunate result that encouraged many to turn to street drugs, instead.
In fact, according to the CDC, an estimated 75% of new heroin users report initiating their habit after first becoming addicted to prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet.
Now, while prescription opioid deaths have remained somewhat stable, deaths due to illicit opioids such as heroin and fentanyl have skyrocketed in comparison. According to the CDC, the number of deaths linked to fentanyl is expected to double from around 9,950 in 2016 to more than 20,100 in 2017. This will be the first time that fentanyl will be the leading cause of opioid fatalities.
What Is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, similar to heroin but up to 50 times more powerful. By prescription, it is typically only administered via transdermal patch, slowing into the skin, and only in cases of severe pain treatment, such as for cancer or end-of-life care.
However, the fentanyl that is killing Americans isn’t a product of drug diversion. According To the Drug Enforcement Administration, street fentanyl is being made in clandestine labs in China and routed through Mexican cartels into the U.S. Some is purchases online via the Dark Web.
While some have experimented with fentanyl, most deaths occur because the user doesn’t know the potency of the drug they are using. Morever, fentanyl is inexpensive and a small amount goes a long way, fentanyl is frequently cut with heroin or pressed into pills in the guise of less-dangerous prescription opioids such as oxycodone.
In other words, despite the risk to their clients, dealers use fentanyl to maximize profits, and they can make a fortune doing so.
But fentanyl is so powerful, exposure can induce a life-threatening central nervous system overdose even as a product of minor skin contact. First responders and other persons exposed to fentanyl often wear protective gear such as gloves and masks to prevent this from occurring.
Fentanyl was the drug that killed the artist Prince in April of last year. It is believed that he ingested illicitly-made pills labeled “Vicodin” that, in reality, contained fentanyl.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology