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U.S. Life Expectancy Rose in 2019, But 2020 Will Reverse That Trend

By Ernie Mundell HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Dec. 22, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, life expectancy in the United States rose in 2019 for the second year in a row, according to two new federal government reports.

But don't expect that good news to be repeated in 2020.

The impact of COVID-19 and other ills are projected to boost the death rate by 15% to exceed 3 million deaths for the first time in U.S. history, according to the Associated Press.

COVID-19 has already killed more than 318,000 Americans.

According to the AP, preliminary data suggest a year-end total for 2020 of more than 3.2 million U.S. deaths. That would be a new record and represent 400,000 more deaths than were recorded for 2019.

The news agency noted that the rise from 2019 to 2020 marks the biggest such jump since 1918-1919, when deaths soared due a combination of fatalities from World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. That remains the record period for any one-year uptick in American deaths, with fatalities rising by 46%, the AP reported.

This year's big rise in death comes after a welcome rise in Americans' life expectancy during 2019, according to new data for last year, issued on Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The agency reported a record number of deaths nationwide in 2019 -- 2,854,838, up 15,633 from 2018, which is expected as population rises. But life expectancy actually rose by 0.1 year, so that the average American had a life expectancy in 2019 of 78.8 years.

Put another way, the age-adjusted death rate fell from 723.6 deaths per 100,000 population in 2018 to 715.2 in 2019.

However, "I would expect this to reverse in 2020, due to COVID, as well as the increases in deaths due to disrupted medical and social services from the pandemic," said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of Global Health at Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, N.Y. He wasn't involved in the new CDC reports.

For 2019, the reports from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics showed that heart disease remained the No. 1 killer, claiming 659,041 lives, followed by cancer (599,601 deaths), and accidents/unintentional injuries (173,040 deaths).

In some good news, suicides fell from 48,344 in 2018 to 47,511 in 2019, and the suicide rate also declined, from 14.2 per 100,000 in 2018 to 13.9 in 2019.

According to the American Federation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), that's the first decline in the suicide rate in two decades.

"We cannot determine which specific factors may have contributed to the decline," Dr. Christine Moutier, chief medical officer for the AFSP, said in an organization news release. "But we do know that creating a culture open to talking about mental health and suicide prevention, educating people about what to do when they are in distress, making help available to those who seek it, using treatments that have been developed based on research, supporting those affected by suicide, and passing legislation that make suicide prevention a top national priority are all positive advancements that we've seen over the past several years that likely had a collective impact."

On the other hand, drug overdoses -- which account for more than a third of accidental deaths -- were up in 2019, after dropping for the first time in 28 years in 2018. Overall, there were 70,630 overdose deaths in 2019, up nearly 5% from 2018.

Preliminary data released last week showed an 18% rise in overdose deaths for the 12 months ending in May 2020, compared to the same period in 2018. The drug overdose death rate rose from 20.7 per 100,000 in 2018 to 21.6 in 2019.

The rate of fatal overdoses involving synthetic opioids other than methadone (drugs such as fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, and tramadol) rose from 9.9 per 100,000 in 2018 to 11.4 in 2019. But officials said the annual rate of increase has at least slowed significantly between 2017 and 2019 (9% a year) compared to 2013-2017 (75% a year).

From 2012 to 2018, the rate of cocaine-related overdose deaths more than tripled (from 1.4 to 4.9 per 100,000) and the rate of deaths involving psychostimulants such as methamphetamine rose more than sixfold (from 0.8 to 5.0 per 100,000).

Overall, "I think the data shows that the improvement in mortality in 2019 was a result of a general improvement in outcomes of the top killers [such as heart disease and cancer]," Cioe-Peña said. "It outweighed the increase in overdose deaths, so in general the U.S. has become healthier and living longer in 2019."

More information

The U.S. National Center for Health Statistics has more on life expectancy.

SOURCES: Eric Cioe-Peña, MD, Director of Global Health, Northwell Health, New Hyde Park, N.Y.; American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, news release, Dec. 22, 2020; U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, news release, Dec. 22, 2020; Associated Press

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