What’s Really Causing the Decline in US Life Expectancy? It’s Not Opioid Overdoses.

From the Washington Post:

For the second year in a row, life expectancy in the United States has dropped. It is not hard to understand why: In 2016, there was a 21 percent rise in the number of deaths caused by drug overdoses, with opioids causing two-thirds of them. Last year, the opioid epidemic killed 42,000 people, more than died of AIDS in any year at the height of the crisis.

In 2016, according to the CDC, 2.7 million people died in America. An extra 7,000 deaths from drug overdoses is a tragedy, but surely it’s not enough to move the needle on life expectancy? Besides, opioids are supposedly the “white” drug, and the age-adjusted death rate for whites was down in 2016. It’s the death rate of blacks that went up, especially black men.

This made me curious, so I looked around to see where this meme came from:

Here’s the abstract from a JAMA report: “Specific contributions of drug, opioid, and alcohol poisonings to changes in US life expectancy since 2000 are unknown.Here’s a Scientific American synopsis of CDC data:While the authors didn’t draw a direct link, another report also released Thursday by the CDC found an estimated 63,600 people died of opioid overdoses in 2016.” According to this chart, about 11,000 more whites died from opioid overdoses last year compared to 2015, but the white death rate went down. Obviously that didn’t contribute to lower life expectancy. Only about 1,200 additional blacks died of opioid overdoses, and that’s definitely not enough to move the needle on overall life expectancy.

Maybe I’m missing something in the subtleties of how death rates correspond to life expectancies, but the change in life expectancy seems like it’s being driven by blacks, especially black men. And the number of opioid overdoses among blacks is too small to impact the overall national life expectancy more than a hair. There’s something else going on, but what?

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.