For the first time in over 50 years, life expectancy in the US has fallen for the second year in a year as the opioid crisis continues to sweep the nation. According to research, the number of drug overdoses has seen an increase of 21%, with an estimated 63,600 dying in 2016. It is now the second consecutive year that life expectancy has fallen, and is now 78.6 years.

This is the first time the US has seen a decrease for two year in a row since 1963, when the country saw a flu epidemic and extremely high tobacco use. According to Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch with the National Center for Health Statistics “We do occasionally see a one-year dip, even that doesn’t happen that often, but two years in a row is quite striking.”

“And the key driver of that is the increase in drug overdose mortality.Together, the drug overdose epidemic and a plateau in improved mortality rates from cardiovascular disease are affecting the entire national picture. We haven’t seen more than two years in a row in declining life expectancy since the Spanish flu – 100 years ago. We would be entering that sort of territory, which is extremely concerning.”

Since 1999, America has seen a rise in the volume of drug misuse and overdoses. With the accessibility of prescription painkillers, there’s been a rise in both legal and illegal opioid abuse which has caused the deaths of over half a million citizens as of 2015. Although there’s been suggestions of harm reductions measures, including treatment facilities and prescription heroine, health professionals have warned that more needs to be done to protect the public from the ongoing health risks of the crisis.

The new data showed a wide variation of fatalities across different ages, demographics and locations, for example those between 25 and 54 saw significantly higher risks of overdoses by far, at 35 per 100,000. West Virginia also saw death rates that were almost triple the national average at 25 per 100,000. The data also shows that one of the biggest threats in this crisis is the increased availability of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which saw a doubling of death rates in the last 2 years, from 3.1 deaths to 6.2 per 100,000.

Anna Lembke, a behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University and an addiction expert commented “What we’re seeing now is the second wave of this epidemic. The first wave started with physicians overprescribing … The second wave has translated into widespread, increased use of illicit opioids, of heroin, of fentanyl, of heroin laced with fentanyl.” She added that “This is going to take a good 10 to 20 years to really turn around. We’ve got multiple generations of people that are already addicted, and it’s going to be a real struggle to help those people.”

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