There’s rare good news in health as new federal reports on life expectancy and drug overdoses showed improvement in 2018, brightening the bleak public health picture of the last few years.
Drug overdose deaths dropped 4% nationwide, despite big upticks in deaths from cocaine and synthetic opioids including fentanyl, according to one of several reports released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lower death rates in the two leading causes of death – heart disease and cancer – contributed to Americans’ increased longevity.
Americans can expect to live to an average age of 78.7 years, a gain of a tenth of a year compared to 2017 figures released a year ago. Perhaps more importantly, the gain reversed a three-year trend of decreases or no gains in life expectancy.
More than half of 2018’s life expectancy was due to declines in cancer and accidental deaths. Drug overdoses account for over a third of all accidental deaths in the U.S.
The 10 leading causes of death remained the same for the third year in a row and the only increases were from suicides and the flu coupled with pneumonia. In addition to lower death rates for heart disease and cancer, deaths rates also dropped for unintentional injuries, lower respiratory diseases, stroke and Alzheimer’s.
“While modest, it’s really great news that the data show progress” on the life expectancy and overdose fronts, said psychologist Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer at the non profit Well Being Trust, which released its own Healing the Nation report on Thursday.
“We have to be a little bit optimistic that some of our approaches to the problems worked, but let’s strike while the iron’s hot.”
He credits the overdose antidote, naloxone, which states and cities have made available so emergency workers and others can save the lives of people overdosing on opiods. But naloxone is a “last resort” that doesn’t get at the root causes of why people turn to drugs or suicide, Miller noted.
Medication-assisted treatment — prescription drugs that decrease the craving for opioids — also has become more available to treat people who are addicted to opioids. Neither MAT nor naloxone, however, prevent addiction or deaths from cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs people are increasingly turning to as prescription opioid pain medicine becomes harder to get and abuse.
While overdose deaths were down overall, the CDC report still showed pockets of trouble. From 2012 to 2018, the rate of drug overdose deaths involving cocaine more than tripled and the rate involving methamphetamine and other “psychostimulants with abuse potential” were up almost five-fold.
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