Chicago Tribune: The grim decline in life expectancy

December 6, 2018

The cover of a recent issue of The Economist magazine highlighted a heartening story: “Staying alive: Why the global suicide rate is falling.” Inside, we learn, “Globally the rate has fallen by 38 percent from its peak in 1994. As a result, over 4 million lives have been saved.”

One country, however, is a stark exception to this welcome improvement: the United States. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that since 1999, the suicide rate has risen by 33 percent, and the trend has accelerated since 2006. Some 45,000 people kill themselves each year, more than the number who die in auto accidents.

That is not the only grim news. More than 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses last year — which is an average of 191 per day. That was up from 63,632 the previous year.

These two developments have produced a three-year decline in Americans’ life expectancy, the longest such reduction since a century ago, when World War I and a devastating worldwide flu epidemic cut short a vast number of lives.

The highest suicide rates are among men over the age of 45. Overdose deaths occur disproportionately in one part of the country, with the highest rates in West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Unlike suicides, they are roughly as likely to occur among city dwellers as their country cousins.

Expanding treatment for mental health problems and substance abuse would also help to save people from suicide and drug overdose.

The expansion of Medicaid in most states under the Affordable Care Act has made mental health treatment easier to obtain.

The Trump administration has offered waivers to states that want to provide more inpatient care for both substance abuse and mental health.

For the modern United States to suffer a three-year decline in life expectancy is a tragedy and a signal for urgent action.

Faced with an epidemic of deaths from despair, Americans need to join together in the task of restoring hope.

— Chicago Tribune

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