For the first time since 1993, life expectancy in the United States has dropped. And researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believe the opioid epidemic has contributed to this recent development.
A study published Sept. 19 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the rise in opioid-involved deaths has shortened life expectancy for Americans by 2 1/2 months.
“It really underlines how serious the problem of opioid overdose has become in the U.S.,” Dr. Deborah Dowell, lead researcher of the study, told Time. “In general we don’t see decreases in life expectancy attributable to a single cause that are of this magnitude.”
The report examined how drug poisoning and 12 leading causes of death in 2015 affected U.S. life expectancy from 2000 to 2015. Researchers drew data from the National Vital Statistics System Mortality file, a collection of death statistics from 50 states and the District of Columbia.
The study showed that the number of opioid-related overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2015. During that span, the number of overdose deaths from all drugs increased from 17,415 to 52,404. Although the CDC has yet to finalize the number of Americans who died of drug overdose in 2016, officials estimate that it will exceed 64,000.
Researchers also found that deaths from drugs other than opioids increased from 9,008 in 2000 to 19,313 in 2015. During that time, deaths involving alcohol poisoning rose from 327 to 2,354.
Some good news came from the report: Death rates associated with conditions such as diabetes and heart disease decreased from 2000 to 2015. And the average life expectancy at birth increased by two years. This metric predicts the average lifespan of a newborn if mortality patterns at the time of birth stay constant in the future.
But increases in deaths from drug overdose, suicide and other causes reduced the average life expectancy.
The CDC report also stated that the number of overdose deaths may be underestimated. As researchers explained, death certificates often do not list opioids as a cause of death when people die from infectious diseases related to opioid use, and up to 25 percent of death certificates do not list the specific drug that caused an overdose.
Drug overdose deaths have ravaged many parts of the United States. In August 2017, President Donald Trump told reporters that he is declaring the opioid crisis a national emergency, but the White House has yet to formalize the declaration.
The President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, has been tasked with finding ways to help eradicate the opioid epidemic. On Oct. 1, the commission was slated to submit a final report detailing ways to fight substance abuse.
However, Christie has requested to push the deadline back to Nov. 1.
In a letter to Trump, Christie shared the commission’s plans to visit a medical center to learn new pain management strategies. The commission will also speak with representatives from the pharmaceutical industry to discuss partnership opportunities with the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration.
On Sept. 27, the opioid commission will meet at the White House to address strategies for diversion prevention and pain management.
Prescription opioids such as hydrocodone and oxycodone heavily contributed to the rise in drug overdose deaths in the early 2000s. But in recent years, heroin and fentanyl have become the leading drivers of opioid-related deaths.
Heroin is a highly addictive opioid derived from morphine, a substance found in certain poppy plants. Heroin generally is sold as a white or brownish powder, and it can be swallowed, smoked or injected. The drug has affected Americans of most age groups and all income levels.
The opioid can cause slowed breathing, coma and death. Individuals who use heroin with alcohol or other drugs increase their risk of overdose. According to the CDC, the rate of overdose deaths involving heroin nearly quadrupled from 2002 to 2013.
Fentanyl is a painkiller that has played a large role in the worsening of the opioid epidemic in recent years. The synthetic opioid is 50 to 100 times more toxic than morphine. Like heroin, fentanyl has contributed to thousands of deaths in recent years.
In 2015, nearly 10,000 people in the United States died from overdoses involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, including fentanyl, per the CDC.