The Opioid Epidemic is Lowering Americans’ Life Expectancy

‘We don’t see decreases in life expectancy attributable to a single cause that are of this magnitude.’

About 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, a majority of them due to opioids, in 2016. The opioid crisis is getting so bad that, according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association, it’s starting to lower life expectancies.

From 2000 to 2015, average life expectancy in the U.S. did go up two years, from 76.8 to 78.8 years. But drug deaths prevented it from growing more. CDC epidemiologist Deborah Dowell and her colleagues found that drug-poisoning deaths (which includes deaths due to opioids) shortened life expectancy by 3.5 months for a baby born in 2015 compared to 2000, with opioids specifically accounting for 2.5 months of the decrease.

Those aren’t eye-catching numbers by themselves, but let’s put it into context: so many people are dying of opioids a year—more than AIDS, guns, or car crashes at their respective peaks—that it’s dragging down nationwide averages of how long we can expect to live.

“It really underlines how serious the problem of opioid overdose has become in the U.S.,” Dowell tells Time. “In general, we don’t see decreases in life expectancy attributable to a single cause that are of this magnitude.”

This is only the latest in a parade of mind-bending, heart-rending statistics coming out about opioid use. Researchers say that the crisis may account for at least 20 percent of the drop in workforce participation for people aged 25 to 54, and that the cost of human lives lost to opioids may top $100 billion a year.

This is both an economic and a mental health problem: when people don’t know what to do with their emotional or physical pain, they find ways to cope. And opioids are “an extremely seductive drug for dead-end towns, because it makes the world’s problems go away,” says Judith Feinberg, a drug addiction researcher at the University of West Virginia. Truly, it’s a crisis of meaning.

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