The drug crisis is now pushing up death rates for almost all groups of Americans
By Joel Achenbach and Dan Keating
Jun 9 2017
The opioid epidemic that has ravaged life expectancy among economically stressed white Americans is taking a rising toll among blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, driving up the overall rate of premature death among Americans in the prime of their lives.
Since the beginning of this decade, death rates have risen among people between the ages of 25 and 44 in virtually every racial and ethnic group and almost all states, according to a Washington Post analysis. The death rate among African Americans is up 4 percent, Hispanics 7 percent, whites 12 percent and Native Americans 18 percent. The rate for Asian Americans also has increased, but at a level that is not statistically significant.
After a century of decreases, the overall death rate for Americans in these prime years rose 8 percent between 2010 and 2015.
The jump in death rates has been driven in large measure by drug overdoses and alcohol abuse, according to The Post’s analysis of mortality data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What it reflects is an out-of-control epidemic right now,” said Josh Sharfstein, director of the Bloomberg American Health Initiative at Johns Hopkins. “It’s affecting the economy. It’s affecting the entire community. This is an absolute call to action for public health.”
Ashish Jha, a health policy professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, added, “These are people who are in the most productive years of their lives — the years where they’re supposed to be raising kids and becoming leaders of the next generation.”
The Post confirmed the contours of the rise in death rates with CDC officials. The rate is adjusted for the nation’s changing age profile, and every five-year age group (for example, 35 to 39, or 40 to 44) showed an increase in mortality.
Preliminary data from the first half of 2016 suggests that the trend is continuing, said Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics for the CDC.
“I think we’re in for another steep increase in the drug overdose deaths overall,” Anderson said.
The rash of deaths is a statistical echo of the 1980s and early 1990s, when the combination of the crack cocaine and HIV epidemics took a heavy toll on young Americans.
Many factors are likely contributing to the current spike, but opioids stand out. The widespread abuse of prescription drugs has become a national crisis, with addicts overdosing on prescription opioids; their illegal cousin, heroin; and, increasingly, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and carfentanil, which are far more powerful and deadly.
Alcohol-related deaths also have increased among whites, blacks and Hispanics, the data show. Meanwhile, homicide, the leading cause of death among young blacks, also has risen since the beginning of this decade.
The new mortality spike is seen in almost every state. The breadth of the nation’s deteriorating health has not been widely appreciated. Academic researchers and the news media in recent years have focused on the most intensely affected regions, such as Appalachia and rural New England, and on premature deaths among white Americans, a trend that began around 1999 and continues unabated.
For more than a century, Americans lived much longer lives because of improvements in medicine, sanitation, control of contagious diseases, nutrition and individual health care. But American mortality appears to have reached an inflection point around 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession. Generally positive mortality trends among blacks and Hispanics flattened out, then gradually worsened.
For blacks and Hispanics, the biggest increase in deaths came in 2015, data for which was released earlier this year.