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Drugs, Alcohol and Suicide Are Causing Life Expectancy in America to Drop Dramatically

From TIME - February 8, 2018

U.S. life expectancy has decreased for the second year in a row, and an editorial in the BMJ points to three contributing factors: drugs, alcohol and suicides, particularly among middle-age white Americans and those living in rural communities. The authors of the paper paint a bleak picture of the problems facing much of the United States today, but the authors say that policies that bolster the middle-class can help reverse the trend.

The recent drop in life expectancy is alarming, the editorial states, because life expectancy has risen for much of the past century in developed countries, including in the U.S. Compared to gains made by other developed countries, however, the United States began to lose ground in the 1980s. Americans life expectancy plateaued in 2012, and now is headed in the opposite direction.

Something is amiss in the health of Americans, and the country, on a population level, is sick and dying earlier, says the editorials lead author, Steven Woolf, director of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University. Quite simply, it means that babies born today are likely to live a shorter life than those born a year or two ago.

As to why U.S. life expectancy is declining, Woolf says that many people point toward the current opioid epidemic. Thats certainly a big factor, but its also a larger problem thats been going on for decades, he says. We know there are deeper systemic causes, that paint a picture of hopelessness and despair and struggling with difficult living conditions.

In 2013, Woolf and his co-author Laudan Aron, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, published a study that found that Americans have poorer health in many areasincluding birth outcomes, injuries, homicides, adolescent pregnancies, HIV/AIDS rates, obesity, diabetes and heart diseasewhen compared to other high-income countries. They also cite lifestyle factors such as high-calorie diets, drug abuse, gun ownership, living in cities designed for cars instead of pedestrians and lack of universal health care as likely contributors.

And while the rate of fatal drug overdoses increased by 137% from 2000 to 2014, Woolf and Aron say, death rates from alcohol abuse and suicides have also gone up. Between 1999 and 2014, the suicide rate rose by 24%, with the sharpest increases among white Americans ages 25 to 59, people with limited education, women and people in rural counties.

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