A Pause for Coffee

A Pause in Dropping U.S. Life Expectancy

U.S. life expectancy had been dropping for three years in a row. But new data from CDC tells us that the decline has taken a pause this year. CDC issued a pair of data briefs today that showed a pause in two troubling trends. Life expectancy ticked up slightly in 2018 after three years of declines. According to CDC, fewer cancer deaths and unintentional injuries explained most of that uptick.

In addition, CDC reported the first decline in drug overdoses in nearly three decades. That decline feeds into the decline of unintentional injuries in 2018. Definitely good news.

Drug Overdoses

The long-term problem with drug overdoses has received much attention recently and it might be paying off. Access to treatment is generally improving, according to a recent report in JAMA, though some gaps present continuing problems.

Deaths from overdoses dropped by four percent in 2018. Mostly that was due to fewer deaths caused by opioid painkillers. Provisional data suggest that the decline may have continued in 2019. Shane Hudson of CKF Addiction Treatment in Salina, Kansas, told the New York Times:

Good things are happening that hadn’t before, like sheriffs, hospitals and others who now use naloxone telling me, “We saved a life.”

Cancer Deaths

The other bright spot in this news is all about cancer deaths. The drop in cancer mortality for 2018 extends a trend seen in 2017. The reduction seen then was the biggest ever recorded. For the most part, this is because of fewer deaths due to lung cancer. Smoking rates are at record lows and treatment options for lung cancer are better than ever.

That’s more good news.

Not So Fast

Before you pop the champagne, note that the big picture is not so rosy. Professor Steven Woolf cautions us:

It’s good news that there was an increase in life expectancy. That’s what we want to see, but it doesn’t really alter the long-term picture. We still have a very bleak situation at this point.

Woolf reported on this bleak picture with a recent paper in JAMA. Laudan Aron, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, explains:

As a country, we are not doing as well as we should. Other high-income countries are outperforming us and continue to outperform us. There is a lot of American exceptionalism at work here. The U.S. is on a very distinct path when it comes to our health, our well-being and our survival.

We see in these reports that attention to evidence-based strategies and better access to care is helping with drug overdoses. For obesity – a driver of worsening mortality – it’s about time that we got serious about taking a similar approach. Good care can prevent a lot of suffering and premature death.

Click here and here for the reports from CDC. Click here and here for further perspective.

A Pause for Coffee, photograph © Jean-Pierre Chambard / flickr

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January 30, 2020