Life expectancy is dropping in wealthy nations as the opioid epidemic continues to ravage segments of the U.S. population, new data shows.
Two new studies in the BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, tracked the trends and social phenomena afflicting high-income countries, the first of which examined what has been occurring in 18 of them. Since 2015, 12 of those 18 nations experienced life expectancy declines among men and 11 saw life expectancy declines among women.
"This hasn't occurred in decades, and the size of these most recent declines were larger than prior declines," said Jessica Ho of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who co-authored the study.
The decline has persisted for the U.S. and United Kingdom, while many of the other nations have reversed course after a life expectancy decline during 2015-2016. A notable cause of death outside the U.S. in 2014-2015 was an especially harsh flu season.
A major reason why the U.S. has seen such consistent decline has been because of opioids that have disproportionately affected young people, accounting for deaths of individuals in their 20s and 30s. The authors of the research mention that in 2016, approximately 115 Americans died every day from opioid overdose, which further depressed the U.S. life expectancy.
ABC's Rochester, New York, affiliate reported that courts have never dealt with anything like the current scourge in terms of the deadliness of the drugs being used, particularly substances laced with fentanyl. In what is called drug courts there — for people with a significant criminal history and significant addiction — it is estimated that defendants are opioid addicts.
Among the nations included in the study were the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, and Japan.
Only Norway, Denmark and Japan saw increases in life expectancy for men and women across all years of life. Japan had the highest life expectancy with an average of 87.2 years for women and 81 years for men.
A second study, which supports the results of the first, found that in the U.S. higher death rates of people in the 25-64 age range showed up, rates that held constant across all major ethnic groups.
"A leading cause is fatal drug overdoses — fueled by the opioid epidemic — but we make a mistake if we focus only on the drug problem, which is just the tip of the iceberg," said Dr. Steven H. Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, lead author of the study, in an email to Reuters.
"Deaths from alcoholism and suicides have also increased, what some call deaths of despair," he said.
The study also found increases in midlife death rates from dozens of diseases of the heart, lungs, digestive systems and other organs in addition to growing death rates during pregnancy and early childhood. The researchers observe that the medical systems of the U.S. and other high-income countries are inadequately addressing what is systemically causing such deteriorating health.