From the Journals

Opioids, other causes linked to shorter lifespans, rising midlife mortality

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Life expectancy fluctuations should sound alarm bells

Life expectancy in some high-income nations has declined, at least temporarily, in recent years for apparent causes such as flu epidemics and “deaths of despair” because of drug abuse and suicide. While these newer trends may be short lived, they’re worrisome because life expectancy reflects human progress. Meanwhile, some nations and subpopulations continue to lag behind high-income nations despite the benefits of the modern era. Moving forward, we must back up policies with better scientific evidence. Improvements are needed in areas such as timely national mortality data, comparable statistics, and reliable numbers.

Domantas Jasilionis, PhD, is with the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany



Two reports in the BMJ regarding new research offer grim tidings about mortality in the United States: One study has suggested the opioid epidemic is driving down life expectancy, and another has found that midlife death rates from multiple causes are on the rise across ethnic groups.

“Death rates are increasing across the U.S. population for dozens of conditions,” according to Steven H. Woolf, MD, MPH, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, and his associates, who together wrote the second study. “Of particular urgency is recognizing that the unfavorable mortality pattern that began for some groups in the 1990s is now unfolding among Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks, a development made more consequential by their high baseline mortality rates.”

Dr. Woolf and his coinvestigators tracked midlife mortality (ages 25-64 years) from 1999-2016 across the U.S. population.

They found that all-cause mortality jumped among whites, American Indians, and Alaska Natives over that time. A trend toward decreasing all-cause mortality ended in 2009-2011 among African Americans, Hispanic American, Asian Americans, and Americans of Pacific Islander descent.

“Drug overdoses were the leading cause of increased mortality in midlife in each population, but mortality also increased for alcohol related conditions, suicides, and organ diseases involving multiple body systems,” according to the researchers.

For the life expectancy study, which was published in the BMJ, researchers led by Jessica Y. Ho, PhD, of the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, tracked all-cause and cause-specific mortality in 18 high-income nations. They focused on the years 2014-2016.

Most of the nations saw declines in life expectancy from 2014-2015, mainly caused by older people dying from physical diseases and mental disorders. From 2015-2016, most of these nations saw their life expectancy levels rebound and experienced “robust gains.”

In the United States, however, life expectancy at birth for women fell from 81.47 years in 2014 to 81.35 years in 2015, and rose to 81.40 years in 2016.

For men, life expectancy fell continuously from 76.67 years in 2014 to 76.50 years in 2015 to 76.40 years in 2016.

In 2016, these life expectancies were the lowest of 17 nations examined in the study. (Statistics from the 18th nation in the study, Canada, were not included for 2016).

The United States was an outlier in other ways. For one, deaths among people younger than 65 years were the major contributor to the life expectancy decline.

And causes of death were also different than other countries: “For American women, drug overdose and external causes, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, contributed roughly equally to the decline in life expectancy, but for American men, nearly all of the decline was attributable to drug overdose and external causes.”

No funding is reported for the death rates study. The study authors report no relevant disclosures.

The life expectancy study was supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Authors variously report support from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

SOURCE: Ho JY et al. BMJ. 2018;362:k2562; Woolf SH et al. BMJ 2018;362:k3096.

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