A heat rate chart flat lining with opiates on top of it.

Drug Problems Rise As Life Expectancy Falls

Last updated: February 8, 2018

2016 saw decline in the average human life expectancy and a staggering rise in deaths related to drug overdose.

Life Expectancy Declines

A decline in human life expectancy is rare in this day since we control much of our environment and continue making leaps in technology and health care — not to mention how much money the United States invests towards medical care. Many professionals in the industry even promote Aubry de Grey’s quote, “The first person to live to 150 has already been born,” even if that’s taken out of context; Aubry de Grey clarified in 2013, ”probably alive today. I would estimate the chance at 90%, though that could fall as low as 70%” (Forbes).

That sentiment has some merit since the last time we saw a decline in life expectancy was in 1993 when during the worst year of the AIDS epidemic. Bear in mind, that was one year drop. However with the 2016 data now totaled and released, we’ve seen two consecutive years in life expectancy drop. Prior to this, the last time we saw a two year drop in life expectancy was 1962 to 1963 with the outbreak of influenza.

In 2015 there was a decrease in human life expectancy, 2016 continued that trend, but doubling the number of overdose deaths. Once the data is aggregated for 2017, we may be seeing an outlier in American history of three consecutive years of life expectancy dropping.

What’s even more telling is the number one cause of death in America has been heart disease. However with improvements in medication and health care, the death toll has leveled. 2016 was the first year that the decrease in deaths from heart disease no longer canceled out the impact of drug overdose deaths. This is one of the ways, we can be certain there’s a correlation between life expectancy and the opioid crisis. This is why the opioid crisis is getting such attention, there’s a stark correlation between the rise in opioid-related deaths and the drop in life expectancy. More than that, every previous circumstance where we’ve seen a decrease in life expectancy has been due to a disease or virus. The fact that we’re seeing a drop in life expectancy and a rise in “diseases of despair” is especially troubling.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also notes that the majority of drug-related deaths occurred among young to middle-aged persons; with the highest drug mortality rates being between those aged 25 to 54. Although opioids make up a large part (read the majority) of deaths, alcoholism, suicide, and overdoses of other drugs have also gone up significantly.

Opioid Overdose Epidemic

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that opioid (including fentanyl, heroin, and prescription pain relievers) killed more than 42,249 people in 2016 which is more than any year previously recorded and a 28% increase over the previous year, 2015. 2016 saw the number of deaths from opioid overdose as five times higher than they were in 1999. The five states with the highest overdose rates were West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, but there was a significant increase in drug overdose death rates in 26 states.

Not only was their a rise from 2014 to 2015, with the number of people who fatally overdosed on synthetic opiates reaching 9,500, but from 2015 to 2016, the death toll more than doubled to 19,400. Deaths from heroin are up 20% and other pain relievers are up by 14%.

Eric Eyre — 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Investigative Reporting — went to West Virginia to determine how the bad the drug problem had become. He ended up capturing the national crisis on a smaller scale. Two pharmaceutical companies had shipped 20.8 million opioids in the last decade which is obscene considering the small town in West Virginia has a population of 2,900 people. In a ten year span, the two pharmacies had allotted 10 million hydrocodone pills and 10 million oxycodone pills.

Drug Problems and the Economy

The United States spends more money on medical care than most other countries in the world. What the opioid crisis is illustrating is a broken system. It’s not a matter of funding that’s the problem, but the care provided (or lack thereof).

Opioids have been a problem since the 1990s and their addictiveness follows a trend that dates far beyond that. First opium was said to be non-addictive and would cure alcoholism. When that was found to be untrue, morphine came about and was said to cure opium addiction — while being non-addictive itself. Then, heroin followed suit, followed by methadone, and so on.

Opiates have been said (by experts) that they’re not addictive for centuries now and the means of combating them is becoming more and more of a problem. For instance, raising the price of opiates is not helping as it forces addicts to turn to harder, street drugs. Some insurance policies no longer cover safer pain relievers, but do cover cheaper, more addictive opiates.

Different numbers have been thrown around concerning the economic impact of opiates, but the Council of Economic Advisors (CEA) estimates that the total cost is much higher, stating that the economic cost of the opioid crisis in 2015 is $504 billion.

In short, this is a problem in dire straits, in desperate need of action and a solution.

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