The US likely experienced its third consecutive year of a sagging life expectancy in 2017, based on preliminary data published this week by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Increased deaths from suicide and drug overdose probably played a role in the decline.
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If final calculations do show that life expectancy declined again in 2017, it would be the first three-year stretch of reduced life expectancy seen in the US since the late 1910s, a period that coincided with the worst flu pandemic in recorded history.
The CDC's National Center For Health Statistics released mortality data for all four quarters of 2017 on Wednesday. According to these provisional numbers, which can be subject to change, the death rate in 2017 rose less than one per cent from 2016, to around 734 deaths per 100,000 people, after adjusting for age. The death rate is used to help calculate life expectancy, along with other factors.
There's still some missing information about these deaths, because it takes time to finalise the causes of deaths that are first investigated by law enforcement. So we don't know for sure whether deaths from drug overdoses and suicides have risen over the full year. But data from earlier quarters of 2017 did find noticeable increases in deaths from these causes.
The death rate from five of the 10 leading causes, such as flu and pneumonia, Alzheimer's, and diabetes, also rose, according to full-year data, while deaths from heart disease and cancer, the first and second leading causes of death in the US, took a slight drop.
In 2015, the average US life expectancy at birth was 78.7 years, which was slightly lower than the average in 2014. In 2016, it again dropped slightly, to 78.6 years, which was the first consecutive-year drop in life expectancy in the US since the 1960s.
The CDC's latest report doesn't include a 2017 estimate of life expectancy at birth, which is a calculation of how many years on average someone born today could be expected to live. But the formula looks at the overall death rate as well as death trends. Younger deaths (such as those often seen with drug overdose), for instance, are more likely to send the life expectancy down than older deaths would.
"Looking at these numbers, it seems likely" the life expectancy will drop once again, Anna Case, a researcher at Princeton University who has studied what seems to be a recent declining life expectancy among older white Americans, told the Associated Press.
The final mortality report for 2017, which will include an estimate of life expectancy, will be released toward the end of the year.