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U.S. Life Expectancy Dropped for the Third Year in a Row. Drugs and Suicide Are Partly to Blame

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U.S. life expectancy dropped in 2017 for the third consecutive year, as deaths by suicide and drug overdose continue to claim more American lives.

The average American could expect to live to 78.6 years old in 2017, down from 78.7 in 2016, according to data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). That decline may be modest, but it marks the third year in a row that life expectancy at birth has fallen — a noteworthy phenomenon, since the previous multiyear drop recorded by the NCHS was in the early 1960s.

The modern trend seems to be propelled by steady increases in deaths by suicide and drugs, according to the new data. Upticks in deaths by suicide and accidental injuries (including drug overdoses), as well as due to conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, influenza and pneumonia, have outpaced reductions in fatal heart disease and cancer, the country’s two leading causes of death. All together, the U.S. death rate rose by 0.4% from 2016 to 2017, going from 728.8 deaths per 100,000 people to 731.9.

Drug overdoses alone took 70,237 lives in 2017, the highest number ever recorded for a single year. While that number corresponds to a 9.6% increase in the death rate, it’s much smaller than the 21% jump recorded between 2015 and 2016 — perhaps a sign that the nation’s substance abuse epidemic may be starting to stabilize. Preliminary data released last month also said drug overdose deaths have fallen over the last year.

Still, drugs — namely opioids such as heroin — continue to be a considerable cause of fatalities. And synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, are a growing problem: The rate of overdose deaths involving these drugs rose by 45% from 2016 to 2017.

Deaths by suicide, meanwhile, rose by 3.7% between 2016 and 2017, according to the new report. While still relatively uncommon, suicides accounted for 14 deaths per 100,000 people in the U.S. last year. In 1999, by contrast, that number was around 10.5 per 100,000 people.

Increases have been particularly pronounced among women, even though most people who die by suicide are male. The female suicide rate rose by 53% between 1999 and 2017, compared to 26% for men. Past CDC data has shown particularly worrisome increases among teen girls, for whom the suicide rate rose by approximately 70% between 2010 and 2016.

The new data is sobering, but the continuing declines in heart disease and cancer deaths provide a silver lining. While the reduction in heart disease deaths was fairly minor last year, the cancer death rate fell by 2.1% — a trend likely reflective of better screening and detection, tumbling smoking rates, expanded vaccination against HPV-related cancers and other public health advances.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com