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The impact of opioids on U.S. life expectancy

Life expectancy increased overall in the United States between 2000 and 2015, but opioid-related deaths reduced the gains made, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study published today.

The bottom line: U.S. life expectancy was steadily rising since 1970 but stopped in 2014, mostly because of drug-related deaths.

Data: Journal of the American Medical Association; Chart: Chris Canipe / Axios

Key findings:

  • Life expectancy rose two years, from 76.8 to 78.8 years, between 2000 and 2015.
  • During that period, decreased death rates due to stroke, cancer, heart disease and other conditions increased life expectancy by 2.25 years.
  • But the increase was offset about 2.5 months by opioid-related deaths.
  • In 2000, there were 17,415 drug-related deaths (including opioids but other drugs as well). In 2015, there were more than 52,400, bumping drug overdoses into the 12 leading causes of death in the country.
  • Data were collected from death certificates, and the authors wrote that the contribution of opioid-involved deaths to the change in life expectancy is likely an underestimate because a specific drug is not always recorded.
  • In the early 2000s, increases in overdose deaths were tied to prescription opioid use but more recently illicit fentanyl and heroin use are driving a surge. That is a difficult demarcation, though. According to Stanford University's Keith Humphreys, "4/5 of people on heroin started on prescription opioids."