U.S. Life Expectancy Went Up Last Year, Prior to the Pandemic

Final data released today for 2019 provides a baseline perspective of mortality in the United States leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020.  The new data are featured in two reports that document the latest official numbers on life expectancy, leading causes of death, and drug overdose deaths for 2019.  The data show that after declining in two out of three years from 2015 to 2017, life expectancy in the United States increased in 2019 for the second consecutive year, despite an increase in deaths from drug overdoses and an all-time high of 2,854,838 total deaths in the country —  15,633 more deaths than the total reported in 2018.  Final data for 2020, which will reflect the mortality toll from the pandemic, are not yet available.

The age-adjusted death rate for the U.S. population as a whole decreased by 1.2% from 723.6 deaths per 100,000 population in 2018 to 715.2 in 2019.  As a result, life expectancy at birth for the U.S. population increased 0.1 year from 2018 to 78.8 years in 2019.  The 10 leading causes of death in 2019 remained the same as the year before, except kidney disease rose from 9th to 8th among leading causes with 51,565 deaths and influenza and pneumonia fell from 8th to 9th, among leading killers with 49,783 deaths.  Heart disease remained the leading cause of death in the U.S. (659,041 deaths), while cancer remained second (599,601 deaths), and accidents/unintentional injuries remained third (173,040 deaths).  The number of suicides in the U.S. declined from 48,344 in 2018 to 47,511 in 2019, and the suicide rate (the number of suicides per 100,000 population) also declined, from 14.2 in 2018 to 13.9 in 2019. 

Drug overdose deaths, featured in the second report released today, increased in 2019 after declining for the first time in 28 years in 2018.  The official number of drug overdose deaths among residents in the United States for 2019 was 70,630, nearly 5% higher than the 67,367 deaths in 2018.  Provisional monthly data released last week for the one-year period ending in May 2020 showed an 18% increase in drug overdose deaths from the same period the year before.  The drug overdose death rate was 21.6 overdose deaths per 100,000 population in 2019, higher than the rate of 20.7 in 2018.

There were familiar patterns of the types of drugs involved in overdose deaths.  The biggest surge in deaths was due to overdoses from synthetic opioids other than methadone, primarily fentanyl.  The death rate from these drugs increased from 9.9 in 2018 to 11.4 in 2019, but the annual rate of increase was actually much slower from 2017 to 2019 (about 9% annually) than it was from 2013-2017, when rates increased at a staggering rate of 75% per year.

Opioids aren’t the only drugs that have taken a devastating toll on American society.  From 2012 to 2019, the rate of drug overdose deaths involving cocaine more than tripled (from 1.4 to 4.9) and the rate for deaths involving psychostimulants with abuse potential (primarily methamphetamine) increased more than six-fold (from 0.8 to 5.0).

The new reports, “Mortality in the United States, 2019” and “Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999-2019” are both available on the NCHS web site.

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