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September 26, 2017

Without the opioid epidemic, US life expectancy would be 2.5 months longer, CDC says

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A rise in drug-related overdose deaths from 2000 to 2015 shortened life expectancy by more than three months for individuals born in 2015—and opioid-related overdoses accounted for most of the decrease, according to a research letter published in JAMA.  

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Research letter details

For the research letter, CDC researchers analyzed data from the National Vital Statistics System Mortality file to estimate the number of deaths and death rates from 2000 to 2015. For the study, the researchers focused on the 12 leading causes of death in the United States, as well as deaths from alcohol and drug overdoses, which—while increasing—are not yet among the 12 leading causes of death.


The researchers found U.S. life expectancy rose from 76.8 years in 2000 to 78.8 years in 2015. The researchers largely attributed the gain in life expectancy to declines in deaths related to:

  • Cancer;
  • Cerebrovascular diseases;
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases;
  • Diabetes;
  • Heart disease;
  • Influenza and pneumonia; and
  • Kidney disease.

However, the researchers found drug-related overdose deaths rose from 17,415 in 2000 to 52,404 in 2015. Those overdoses shortened life expectancy by 3.5 months for individuals born in 2015, and opioid-related overdoses accounted for about 2.5 months of the decrease.

The researchers noted that their calculations likely underestimate the effect of opioid-related overdose deaths on life expectancy because "the accuracy and completeness of information recorded on death certificates affect cause-specific death rates."


The researchers wrote that the loss in life expectancy from drug overdose deaths is "similar in magnitude to losses from all the [12] leading causes of death." For example, chronic liver disease—the 12th leading cause of death in 2015—killed 40,326 individuals, while opioid overdoses killed 33,091 individuals in 2015, according to the Washington Post's "Morning Mix."

Deborah Dowell, a senior medical adviser CDC's division of unintentional injury prevention, said the research letter "underlines how serious the problem of opioid overdose has become in the United States." Dowell said, "In general we don't see decreases in life expectancy attributable to a single cause that are of this magnitude" (Swenson/Andrews, "Morning Mix," Washington Post, 9/20; Lopez, Vox, 9/20; Park, Time, 9/20; Dowell et al., JAMA, 9/19).

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