A Shocking Decline in American Life Expectancy

Because of the opioid epidemic, Americans have been dying younger for two years in a row.

A syringe on the ground
Brian Snyder / Reuters

For the first time since the early 1960s, life expectancy in the United States has declined for the second year in a row, according to a CDC report released Thursday. American men can now expect to live 76.1 years, a decrease of two-tenths of a year from 2015. American women’s life expectancy remained at 81.1 years.

The change was driven largely by a rising death rate among younger Americans. The death rate of people between the ages of 25 and 34 increased by 10 percent between 2015 and 2016, while the death rate continued to decrease for people over the age of 65.

Life Expectancy by Age


The only racial group that saw a significant increase in their death rate between 2015 and 2016 were black men: Their age-adjusted mortality rate increased by 1 percent.

“What you see this year is a leveling off of the gains that we’ve had over the years, especially with heart disease and cancer,” among black men, said Garth Graham, the president of the Aetna Foundation and former head of the U.S. Office of Minority Health. “And the opioid epidemic is starting to overtake whatever gains we’ve made in that sector.”

Age-Adjusted Death Rate, by Race and Sex


The rise in young American deaths has been fueled by fentanyl overdoses. Unintentional injuries, a category that includes drug overdoses, became the third leading cause of death in 2016, after heart disease and cancer. In 2015, it had been the fourth-leading cause.

In 2016, more than 63,600 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to another CDC report released Thursday, or 21 percent more than in 2015. The overdose rate was highest among men and people under 55.

Age-Adjusted Drug-Overdose Death Rates, by Opioid Category

“Synthetic opioids other than methadone” include drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol. (CDC)

Because that number is likely an underestimate, Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University, told The Washington Post that “even if you ignored deaths from all other drugs, the opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.”