Drug overdose deaths soared last year, fueled by heroin and synthetic opioids, reducing life expectancy for the second year in a row, according to two new reports.
Last year, 63,600 people died from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. The age-adjusted overdose death rate rose 21 percent, to 19.8 per 100,000 in 2016 from 16.3 per 100,000 in 2015.
The data suggests the epidemic, which has already ravaged countless communities, is becoming even deadlier. Reports have chronicled how potent synthetics such as fentanyl are becoming more common — and more dangerous.
Overdose deaths involving non-methadone synthetic opioids doubled last year, surpassing those that involved only heroin. The rates were 6.2 percent and 4.9 percent, respectively. However, those numbers are not perfectly comparable because there's overlap between them. Someone with a combination of drugs in their systems would be placed in both categories.
The surge contributed to life expectancy dropping to 78.6 years from 78.7 years, the first time that figure has declined two years in a row since the 1960s. A one-tenth-of-a-year decline may not seem like much, but it takes significant changes to move an average based on the nation's massive population, said Robert Anderson, chief of the National Center for Health Statistics' mortality statistics branch.
"We're talking about a lot of lives being cut short. That's what the decline represents: a lot of lives being cut short," Anderson said.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia had drug overdose death rates that were higher than the national rate of 19.8 per 100,000. Five had figures that were comparable, and 23 had ones that were lower.
Every age group studied saw an increase in drug overdose death rates. They were highest for people between 25 and 54 at about 35 per 100,000. The largest percentage spikes occurred in adults between 15 and 44. That population is broken into three categories, which together experienced increases between 24 percent and 29 percent.
"I think it speaks to where the opioid epidemic is focused, and I think it speaks to the potential long-term impact of where that focus is right now," said Aetna Foundation President Garth Graham. "Meaning that if you take out our youngest and brightest in terms of the future of America, that's where we face the most potential challenges in the future."
Overdose death rates for men continue to nearly double those for women. Last year, figures for men were 26.2 per 100,000. For women, they were 13.4 per 100,000.
"It's a problem across the board, and we're seeing increases from all groups," Anderson said. "People of all walks of life are dying from this."
If drug overdoses continue to increase this year, life expectancy could decrease again. If that happens, it would be the first time since the Spanish flu swept through the country a century ago, Anderson said.
"It's almost an unprecedented decline in life expectancy," he said. "Three years in a row should raise concerns about the health of our nation."