Drug and Alcohol Deaths is Now Affecting Average American Life Expectancy

Drug overdose death rates, by state
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—Age-adjusted drug overdose death rates, by state—United States, 2016

When we think of the quality of living in the U.S., our first concept is that our country is healthy, operating well, and with residents who live long, fulfilling lives. Sure, we have our fast food and our even faster lifestyles, but we generally perceive the U.S. as being a pretty healthy and “able-bodied” country. It might come as a surprise that the U.S. national life expectancy has dropped for two years in a row, and it has dropped because of the opiate epidemic.

Drug Use Contributes to Decreased Life Expectancy

Skull with drugs

The average American life expectancy usually increases every year as our technology and ease of lifestyle advances. The last time the average American life expectancy dipped was in 1993 when the U.S. was in the throes of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Looking even further back, the last time the average American life expectancy dipped two years in a row was in 1965 and 1966 during the Vietnam War.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than sixty-three thousand people died from drug overdoses in 2016—quadruple the increase of overdoses from the late 1990s. Drug and alcohol deaths are now the most common cause of accidental death in the U.S., creating a sense of unmatched urgency in our necessity to address the crisis.

From 2015 to 2016, opiates were the primary contributor to ever-growing overdose deaths. Prescription pill overdoses increased by 14%. Heroin overdoses increased by nearly 20%. Overdoses from fentanyl, carfentanil, and other synthetic opioids doubled.

As drug overdoses swept the nation, life expectancy dropped. The severity of the American opioid epidemic was so immense that it affected a nationwide change in American life expectancy. From 2014 to 2015, life expectancy dropped from 78.9 years to 78.7 years. From 2015 to 2016, it dropped again from 78.7 to 78.6 years. Life expectancy for 2017 has not been measured yet.

The above changes may not seem like a significant difference, but extrapolated over the entire population, it is a matter of millions of years of potential life not being lived. The trend is very concerning, as life expectancy is a major indicator of the general well-being of any country.

Sad 80 years old man

How the U.S. Compares to Other Countries in Life Expectancy

On the bright side, the average life expectancy in the U.S. has been more or less steadily rising for decades. But it is these occasional ticks downward that stunts life expectancy growth. For that reason and others, the United States ranks in 31st place in the World for life expectancy, with Cuba just below us at 32nd place, and Costa Rica just above us at 30th place. Drug and alcohol abuse is not the only factor that contributes to this placement, but it is a significant factor.

On a state-by-state basis, certain states suffer from this problem more than others do. West Virginia, Ohio, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. have significant overdose problems. Iowa, Texas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nevada tend to experience the lowest trend increase, yet the trend still does increase in those states, if only marginally.

Prevention and Rehabilitation Is the Answer

In a nation awash with overdose crisis and addiction epidemic, only groundbreaking action on a nationwide scale can fix this problem. We need to focus on helping those who are currently addicted. We need to also focus on preventing others who are not yet addicted from becoming addicted. Drug abuse claims lives—so does alcoholism. When it is a life or death matter, no cost or effort is “too much” in confronting and addressing the issue.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.