So-Called Deaths of Despair Drive Life Expectancy Down in Arizona

By Walker, Lindsay | AZ Daily Star, January 11, 2020 | Go to article overview

So-Called Deaths of Despair Drive Life Expectancy Down in Arizona


Walker, Lindsay, AZ Daily Star


After decades of steady increases, life expectancy in the U.S. ticked down slightly over three recent years, a drop attributed to a rise in “cause-specific” deaths like suicides and drug overdoses among those ages 25 to 64.

The same was true in Arizona where, even though life expectancy was still higher than the national average, it was dropping at a similar rate.

The report in the Journal of the American Medical Association said that after rising to 79.1 years in 2014, U.S. life expectancy fell to 78.9 years in 2016, the latest year for which numbers were available. In Arizona, the number fell from 79.6 to 79.3 years.

The drops were a reflection of increased deaths among 25- to 64-year-old Americans, who saw their mortality rate shoot from 328.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2010 to 348.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017, a nearly 6% increase.

In Arizona, the mortality rate for that age group grew 6.2% in the same period.

“This is a uniquely American phenomenon,” said report co-author Steven Woolf, who said no other developed country is seeing such declines.

Woolf, the director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the decline has been decades in the making. He said high unemployment rates, stagnant wages and the rising cost of living have been building since the 1980s and reached a tipping point after the 2008 economic recession.

“The economy is stronger now, but the benefits of the economy are going to corporations and a small subset of affluent Americans,” Woolf said. “This can lead to health complications and deaths of despair.”

The report says “deaths of despair” include suicides, and drug and alcohol-related deaths. Fatal drug overdoses, specifically from opioids, were a major cause of what the report terms “excess deaths.” A third of those deaths occurred in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Indiana — states hit hard by the recession and the opioid epidemic.

The JAMA report said mortality from drug overdoses in 25- to 64-year-olds increased by 386.5% between 1999 and 2017.

Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said the rise in deaths of despair should force a shift for public health officials.

“Throughout most of my career we were dealing with kind of the classic public health issues, things like increasing the number of vaccinations to decrease infant mortality, motor vehicle accidents and injuries, interventions like those,” Humble said. …

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