Life expectancy has dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 in the United States. Federal officials report that the decrease is linked to the growing number of opioid overdoses. Life expectancy is generally considered a factor that helps measure the general well-being of a nation, per NPR.
"I'm not prone to dramatic statements," Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, told NPR. "But I think we should be really alarmed. The drug overdose problem is a public health problem, and it needs to be addressed. We need to get a handle on it."
The last time that life expectancy dropped in the United States was in 1993 due to the growing AIDS epidemic. But life expectancy has not dropped two years in a row since over 50 years ago.
As far as the numbers go, average life expectancy fell from 78.7 in 2015 to 78.6 in 2016. In 2014, life expectancy was at 78.9.
"For any individual, that's not a whole lot. But when you're talking about it in terms of a population, you're talking about a significant number of potential lives that aren't being lived," Anderson explained.
Deaths from opioid drug overdoses have increased significantly in the past few years. A recent report released Thursday found that 42,200 of the 63,600 overdose deaths counted in 2016 were caused by opioids. The numbers only showed a trend following from the previous year, in which 33,000 of the 52,400 overdose deaths were attributed to opioids. When it comes to synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, the rate has also increased significantly. NPR reports that the rate was at 3.1 per 100,000 in 2015 and 6.2 per 100,000 in 2016.
Anne Case, an economist at Princeton University, suggests that the life expectancy decrease is part of a larger phenomenon in the country. Her studies have shown that suicides among white people are on the rise. "Deaths from alcohol have been rising as well. So we think of it all being signs that something is really wrong and whatever it is that's really wrong is happening nationwide," Case told NPR.
She also adds that stressors such as a lack of well-paying jobs with significant yearly salary increases, job security or good benefits may also be the cause of a growing sense of “frustration and hopelessness. This results in fewer marriages and more children growing up with single parents.
"They don't have a good job. They don't have a marriage that supports them. They may have children that they do or don't see," Case said. "They have a much more fragile existence than they would have had a generation ago."
“It may be the deaths from drugs, from suicide, from alcohol are related to the fact that people don't have the stability and a hope for the future that they might have had in the past," Case says.