US life expectancy increases for the first time in 4 years

New data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that life expectancy in the United States increased in 2018, largest due to a decline in fatal drug overdoses and a fall in deaths related to cancer.

Elderly People

Image Credit: Olena Yakobchuk/

This is the first time since 2014 that life expectancy has risen, however, it is not good news all round as some causes of death has reported an uptick, suicide, for example, has increased during this period.

In 2018, the life expectancy at birth was 78.7, an increment of 0.1 years on the 2017 figure. While this seems insignificant, experts explain that for a large population that figure represents a vast number of people avoiding premature deaths.

While this is good news, life expectancy is still lower than it was when it met its all-time high in the US in 2014, with the average lifespan being 78.9 years. Following this, 2015 saw it fall, stall at this figure in 2016, and fall again in 2017. A rising number of deaths attributed to drug overdoses has been attributed to this fall in life expectancy.

Tackling drug overdoses major driver of increasing life expectancy

2018 saw a 4.1% fall in drug overdose-related deaths compared with 2017, representing the first fall in this kind of death since 1999. Given that drug overdoses are one of the 10 leading causes of death in the US, this decrease has significantly affected life expectancy.

While the data is positive, showing that the country is making an impact in addressing unnecessary deaths from drug overdoses, experts highlight that there is still a long way to go, and that a one-year dip is not enough to signify a change in trend. In 2018, over 67,000 people still lost their lives to drug overdoses, representing a huge portion of the population needlessly dying.

While overdoses of some drugs have fallen, such as methadone and heroin, there has been an increase in deaths related to other substances, such as synthetic opioids such as fentanyl which rose by 10% between 2017 and 2018, and stimulants like cocaine which rose by 27% between 2012 to 2018, and methamphetamine which increased by 30% over the same period.

Also, the data shows that the fall in overdoses in some drugs are not uniform across the different states, with some states reporting no change or even an increase. Due to the complexity of the data, the findings should be treated with caution, and not as a symbol of a drastic change in drug use.

Most likely, the findings represent the success of certain projects aiming to tackle drug addiction that is taking place in specific areas, with much more work needing to be done to take this trend nation-wide.

Cancer deaths continue to fall

A fall in the number of people dying from cancer has also been attributed as a major driver for the recent increase in life expectancy. Since the 90s deaths related to cancer have consistently fallen year-on-year, as treatment, diagnosis, and remission continue to improve.

Suicide rates on the rise

It should be noted that while life expectancy is increasing, this does not mean that all causes of premature death are falling. Suicide rates rose by 1.4% between 2017 and 2018, a rate that has been steadily increasing since 2000. However, the rate of increase does seem to be slowing, with the rate of increase between 2016 and 2017 being much higher than 2017-2018, at 4.4%.

It should be noted that these figures are too early to be taken as a change in trend. The data collected over the coming years will be able to confirm if suicide rates are slowing and may go into decline in the future.

Experts are, however, hopeful, given that there has been marked effort nationwide to prevent people from taking their own life.

The national strategy for suicide prevention includes a hotline, trained healthier workers in hospitals and clinics, and funding for mental health care for young people. It is hoped that continued efforts will make a significant impact on the number of people completing suicide each year.

Source: (2020). NVSS - Mortality Data. [online] Available at: [Accessed 30 Jan. 2020].

Sarah Moore

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Sarah Moore

After studying Psychology and then Neuroscience, Sarah quickly found her enjoyment for researching and writing research papers; turning to a passion to connect ideas with people through writing.


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