The life expectancy for Americans has declined for the first time in 23 years.
Data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that the average life expectancy for a U.S. man fell from 76.5 years in 2014 to 76.3 in 2015. For women, it fell from 81.3 to 81.2.
Disease certainly plays the biggest part. There was a 0.9 percent rise in deaths due to heart disease, which is by far the nation’s biggest killer. And the number of people dying from Alzheimer's jumped by 15.7 percent, though experts tell the Washington Post that the surge is likely due to improved reporting, rather than a dramatic increase in incidence.
But Jiaquan Xu, the main author of the new report, told Stat that he’s particularly concerned by the increase in unintentional deaths. “Motor vehicle accidents have gone up 6 percent,” he explains. “Accidental poisoning increased 13 percent. And 97 percent of accidental poisoning was from drug overdoses and alcohol,” he added, citing the opioid epidemic as a particular problem.
Opioid abuse has become a serious public health issue in the U.S., with addiction to the drugs leading to greater risk of overdose. Precise figures for opioid-related deaths aren’t included in the report, but they accounted for 28,000 lost lives in 2014, and Xu clearly worries that an appreciable chunk of the rise in accidental poisoning may be attributed to them. While people are working to develop drugs that could end the problem, for now common opioids like Oxycontin are still being prescribed regularly.
Meanwhile, statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently showed that 35,092 people died in crashes on U.S. roads during 2015, up from 32,744 in 2014. Accidents where distracted driving—the result of, say, texting on a cell phone or fiddling with the car stereo—was cited as a reason rose by 8.8 percent year-on-year. While autonomous cars may go some way to solving that in the long-term, experts have warned that semi-autonomous vehicles may yet cause the figures to rise in the near future.
There’s a small glimmer of hope lurking in the report, though. Deaths due to cancer—the second-biggest cause of death in the U.S.—actually fell by 1.7 percent in 2015. That's partly due to increasing awareness of the disease, but also thanks to tireless research efforts to create new therapies.
Hopefully causes of unintentional deaths will soon benefit from innovation, too.