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US life expectancy drops again in 2017, marking the worst period of decline since World War I
The life expectancy for Americans declined for the second year in a row, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, in 2017, the U.S. had 2.8 million deaths or almost 70,000 more than the previous year. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

US life expectancy drops again in 2017, marking the worst period of decline since World War I

Drug overdoses and suicides helped fuel an increase in deaths in the U.S. last year, and also impacted the continued decline in life expectancy for Americans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Thursday.

In 2017, Americans overall could expect to live to 78.6. That’s a decrease of a tenth of a year from the 2016 estimate.

The male life expectancy was 76.1 years, down a tenth of a year from 2016. The life expectancy for women in 2017 was 81.1 years, the same as the previous year.

The figures represent the longest sustained decline in expected life span at birth in a century.

What’s happening?

In 2017, the U.S. had 2.8 million deaths or almost 70,000 more than the previous year. The figure marks the most deaths in a single year since the government began counting more than a century ago, according to published reports.

Drug overdoses increased to 70,237 in 2017, compared to 63,632 the year before, the government stated in an accompanying report. Opioids caused 47,600 deaths in 2017, a record figure driven mainly by an increase in fentanyl deaths.

"These sobering statistics are a wake-up call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable," Dr. Robert Redfield, the CDC's director, said in a statement.

Additionally, last year’s suicide death rate (47,000) reached an all-time high in at least 50 years. In the previous year there were 45,000 suicides.

Life expectancy in the U.S. rose a few months a year for decades. But it started falling in in 2015, stayed the same in 2016, and declined again in 2017, according to the CDC.

The figures mark an “appalling performance not seen in the United States since 1915 through 1918," the Washington Post reported. That period included World War I and a flu pandemic that killed 675,000 people in the United States.

Aside from that, "we've never really seen anything like this," said Robert Anderson, who oversees CDC death statistics.

What are some other reasons?

Other factors impacting life expectancy include a growing and aging population. However, deaths in younger groups have the biggest impact on life expectancy calculations.

Among the nation’s top 10 leading causes of death in 2017, only the cancer death rate fell. Meanwhile, death rates increased for suicide, stroke, diabetes, flu/pneumonia, chronic lower respiratory diseases, Alzheimer's, and unintentional injuries.

Also, the death rate for the nation’s No. 1 killer, heart disease, has remained stagnant.

Anything else?

Dr. William Dietz, a disease prevention expert at George Washington University, said a sense of hopelessness over finances and a widening gulf between the wealthy and the poor could also be driving the increasing death rates.

"I really do believe that people are increasingly hopeless, and that that leads to drug use, it leads potentially to suicide," Dietz told the Associated Press.

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