Life expectancy in the United States increased in 2018 for the first time in four years, driven largely by a drop in cancer-related deaths and a historic decline in fatal overdoses.
New CDC data released Thursday provides hope that the major contributors to three years of stagnant or declining life expectancy may be relenting. Still, other factors such as suicide ticked up in the past year.
The data confirms fatal drug overdoses dropped in 2018 for the first time in nearly 30 years — a bright spot for President Donald Trump, who has made the opioid crisis a key issue of his presidency. The decrease could indicate that federal and state efforts to tackle the opioid epidemic are working.
Americans born in 2018 are expected to live to 78.7 years, up from 78.6 the year before. The increase is a break from the three-year streak where the life expectancy either decreased or stayed the same — largely due to a dramatic rise in overdose deaths and suicide.
More than 67,000 people died of an overdose in 2018, the second-highest number ever recorded, but that represents a 4 percent decline from 2017. The overall death rate — a measure that accounts for changes in population — declined 5 percent year-over-year.
And while deaths from heroin and prescription opioids are down, public health officials are concerned by rising death rate from the synthetic opioid fentanyl — which increased 10 percent since 2017 — as well as cocaine and methamphetamine. The number of deaths involving psychostimulants like methamphetamine increased 22 percent, while deaths from cocaine, which can be laced with fentanyl, killed more than 14,000 people last year, up 5 percent from 2017 and more than double the number in 2015.
Congress and Trump administration officials have started to address the surge of methamphetamine and cocaine deaths, but some experts say efforts should focus more broadly on addiction and less on a specific substance.
“We need to take off the ‘single drug’ blinders,” said Andrew Kessler, founder and principle of Slingshot Solutions, a health policy consulting firm. ”Polysubstance abuse is rampant, and the data backs this up. It’s still about the disease of addiction and always will be.”
Meanwhile, the data found the suicide rate climbed slightly in 2018 — 1.4 percent — continuing a decadeslong trend of persistent increases. Public health experts say policymakers should focus their attention on the rising suicide rates among nearly all age groups.
“There’s not a lot of clinical intervention there,” said Mike Fraser, executive director for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. “So, until we start thinking about upstream factors that keep people well, the numbers are likely to keep going up.”
Researchers said a 2.2 percent drop in cancer deaths also largely contributed to the increase in life expectancy. Still, heart disease and cancer remained the leading causes of death in the United States, even though death rates for both dropped slightly.
This is the second year in a row the cancer rate decreased 2.2 percent. Earlier this month Trump appeared to claim credit for the 2017 drop, though scientists attribute it to the decrease in smoking, earlier detection and better treatments.
The death rate for chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease all dropped slightly, but the death rate increased 4.2 percent for influenza and pneumonia. Rates for diabetes and kidney disease did not change significantly.
A separate CDC report also released Thursday found a significant uptick in deaths related to pregnancy and birth across the U.S. — much higher than any other developed country.
In 2007, the last time the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics released national data on maternal mortality, the rate was 12.7 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. In 2018, when 658 women died of maternal causes, the rate soared to 17.4.
But the rise in maternal mortality over the last decade, CDC argues, is mainly due to states’ better reporting, particularly the implementation of a “checkbox” on death certificates indicating the pregnancy status of the decedent.
Alice Miranda Ollstein contributed to this report.