Overdose, alcohol deaths cast dark shadow on American life expectancy

Posted on: September 19th, 2017 by sobrietyresources

By David Heitz

Despite medical advances, the American life expectancy dipped from 2014 to 2015 due to the nation’s opioid, alcohol crises.

Between 2000 and 2015 in the U.S., life expectancy increased overall. But from 2014 to 2015, we began to slide backward.

The data places the blame squarely at the feet of painkiller and heroin overdoses.

Previous researchers already have reported that overdoses have contributed to reducing life expectancy among non-Hispanic whites.

The harsh conclusion, directly from the research letter published Tuesday in JAMA:

“U.S. life expectancy decreased from 2014 to 2015 and is now lower than in most high-income countries, with this gap projected to increase,” the authors concluded. “These findings suggest that preventing opioid-related poisoning deaths will be important to achieving more robust increases in life expectancy once again.” (1)

It’s the first time the opioid epidemic has been framed in such a way as to directly tell white Americans, “Your children may live a shorter life than you because people are overdosing on prescription drugs and heroin,” in so many words.

Dr. Deborah Dowell of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention led the team of researchers. They combed through government data that is assembled via death certificates.

It was a complicated task. They looked at the 12 leading causes of death, which included unintentional injuries and suicide.

The authors explained, “In ranked cause-of-death classification, drug, opioid,
and alcohol poisoning are not considered to be unique cause-of-death categories. Instead, poisoning deaths are classified as either accidental poisonings (which contribute to unintentional injuries), suicides, or homicides (ranked 16th in leading causes of death). Contributions from drug, opioid, and alcohol poisoning deaths overlap with both unintentional injury deaths and suicides and cannot be summed with these leading ranked causes of death.”

Using spreadsheets and other software, they crunched numbers to arrive at their conclusions.

Elderly and female drinkers constituting a ‘public health crisis’

The bottom line is, so many people have died from opioid overdose that it is impacting the overall life expectancy in the United States.

The authors’ research showed that average life expectancy for newborns rose two years from 2000 to 2015, to 78.8 years.

But, it would have climbed even higher had drug-poisoning deaths not tripled during the period, from 17,415 in 2000 to 52,204 in 2015. In fact, the age-adjusted death rate – a person’s chances of dying from something not related to natural causes – increased from 6.2 per 100,000 people to 16.3.

Alcohol poisoning also contributed negatively to the overall life expectancy during the period. In fact, alcohol poisonings during the period exploded eight-fold, from 327 to 2,354.

Those numbers may not necessarily reflect an increase in the number of American drinkers, but they do reflect a shocking, exponential increase in the number of people who literally drink themselves to death.

Recent research also showed where the spike in alcohol abuse is happening.

In an unrelated JAMA study just last month, Bridget Grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and colleagues combed through epidemiological data spanning 2001-2002 to 2012-2013, Their conclusion:

“Increases in alcohol use, high-risk drinking, and DSM-IV AUD in the US population and among subgroups, especially women, older adults, racial/ethnic minorities, and the socioeconomically disadvantaged, constitute a public health crisis.

“Taken together, these findings portend increases in many chronic comorbidities in which alcohol use has a substantial role.” (2)

In other words, heart disease, liver disease and mental trouble all can arise from drinking too much. Yet it’s not the manly man downing brews with the boys making headlines in the latest research.

Nobody is immune to alcoholism, painkiller, heroin and opioid addiction, or any addiction. Nobody is to blame for it either, especially once they take that first step and admit they need help.

Statistics show groups most affected by addiction

In an accompanying editorial to the report about heavy drinking among the elderly, women and minorities, Dr. Marc Schuckit validates the research.

“The validity of the results is underscored by the impressive methodology, which at each time applied virtually identical, well-validated face-to-face interviews and analytic approaches to about 40,000 nationally representative participants 18 years and older,” he writes. (3)

The threshold for problem drinking also was high. “The concept of high-risk drinking demanded five drinks per occasion for men (four for women) at least weekly, with a standard drink defined as 14 g of ethanol, and alcohol use disorders (AUDs) were defined by DSM-5.”

DSM-5 is considered the so-called bible for mental health diagnoses.

Getting down to brass tacks:

  • The number of women diagnosed with alcohol use disorder spiked almost 84 percent during the period.
  • Among blacks, AUDs ballooned by almost 93 percent.
  • Among people ages 45 to 64, the researchers reported an 81.5 percent spike in AUDs.
  • And among those ages 65 and up, there has been almost a 107 percent increase in AUDs during the 11-year span ending in 2012.

To make matters worse. Dr. Schuckit noted, “The higher rate of alcohol problems in subgroups with lower financial resources are cause for concern for humanitarian reasons alone.

“But even if those are set aside, the absence of easier access to medical care for individuals with long-term, often severe medical problems associated with heavier drinking is likely to result in these individuals turning to emergency departments for their treatment.”

That is, they only seek help in desperation, and at great cost financially and to the soul. A hospital isn’t the most comfortable place to get sober.

Easing of stigma, shame will begin to save lives

Finally, there is the suicide factor. The wild card.

And the card is getting pulled more and more. Statistics from the aforementioned CDC study showed that death by suicide rose from 29,350 to 44,193.

Most people who suffer from alcoholism or drug addiction have something else going on, too. They may be the victim of rape or some other form of violence, or they may have suffered some other form of trauma.

Nobody wants to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. When they do, they feel so bad, they continue to medicate themselves to numb the pain. It is such an ugly and vicious cycle that once broken, a whole new person is unleashed from within.

Americans thankfully have come a very long way in how they view addiction, particularly heroin and opioid addiction.

Yet in other ways, the alcoholic and the addict both remain stigmatized. It is a paradox that it takes people dying all around us to understand that these are lives that can be saved.

The early days of HIV/AIDS are a not-so-pleasant reminder of this. When it’s your son, your mother, your husband, your partner, everything changes.

And then, the judging stops. When the judging stops, people tend to seek help.

These staggering numbers show that our country is in the grips of an addiction and alcohol “public health crisis,” to use the words of one of the researchers.

We must all issue a call to action to reach out to the addicted and those ravaged by booze, and to offer them unconditional love and support. Only then will they listen when you point them in the direction of help.

More importantly, only then will they believe their own lives are worth saving.


  1. Dowell, D. et al. (2017, Sept. 19). Contribution of Opioid-Involved Poisoning to the Change in Life Expectancy in the United States, 2000-2015. JAMA. Retrieved Sept.16, 2017, from http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/10.1001/jama.2017.9308
  2. Grant, B. et al. (2017, September). Prevalence of 12-Month Alcohol Use, High-Risk Drinking, and DSM-IV Alcohol Use Disorder in the United States, 2001-2002 to 2012-2013: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved Sept. 16, 2017, from http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2647079
  3. Schuckit, M. et al. Remarkable increases in Alcohol Use Disorders. (2017, September). JAMA Psychiatry. Retrieved Sept. 16, 2017, from http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapsychiatry/article-abstract/2647075
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