Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses death certificates and other sources to calculate statistics on American causes of death and our average life expectancy.
Last year wasn’t a good year.
The CDC found that for the first time in decades, Americans are living shorter lives—without a major disease outbreak to account for it. After a similar finding in 2014, health officials are warning that this is the start of a trend.
Rates for eight of the top ten most prominent causes of death increased in 2015; only cancer, the No. 2 killer in the country, decreased.
As individual categories of deaths went up, so did the overall rate. Approximately 2.7 million Americans died in 2015, an increase of 86,000 from the year before. This evidence suggests a broadly worsening picture of American health, a decline that cannot be arrested by improvements in one or a handful of categories. Death rates increased for black, white, and Hispanic men, as well as white and Hispanic women.
Numbers in some areas are especially grim.
CDC findings confirm the New York Times’s reporting from this summer that American suicide rates had hit a 30-year high, rising for every age group except those over 75. Increases in suicide rates were highest for men and women between 45 and 64; suicides jumped by 43% and 63%, respectively. The finding for middle-aged Americans is especially troubling, as suicide rates for that group had been stable or falling since the 1950s. Suicide rates among Native Americans increased by the most of any group — an 89% jump for women alone.
Drug overdose deaths surged to 52,000 last year, a one-year increase of 11% and the most ever recorded by the CDC. They reported that over half of overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid such as OxyContin; overdose deaths due to prescription opioids have quadrupled, as have sales of the drugs.
And for the first time in American history, overdose deaths from heroin, opioids and synthetic drugs (Fetanyl, Carfentanil, others) have outpaced gun homicides as a national cause of death.
The CDC has not finished calculating socioeconomic data for death rates. But it would be a surprise if those figures did not largely accompany suicide and overdose rates, affecting the same populations in the same places.
Even as a bipartisan group in the House and Senate joins President Obama in pledging $1.1 billion to the heroin epidemic, the problem is broader than opioids alone. These are symptoms of an American decline, a rejection of the fading opportunity and bleaker reality of American life by generations and classes of people.
And it will take more than one good year to turn around.