Are Addiction and Mental Illness Decreasing America’s Life Expectancy?

Addiction and Life Expectancy

By Michael Desjardins, APRN

The steady flow of clients visiting me and my colleagues’ offices and treatment centers for “diseases of despair” like depression and addiction seems to mirror trends in a recently released report by the National Center for Health Statistics. The report shows that U.S. life expectancy rates have decreased for the first time since 1993, and some data analysts are pointing the finger at a rise in substance abuse and mental illness.

The recent report indicated that the life expectancy for men in 2015 was 76.3 years, a decrease from 76.5 in 2014. Women’s life expectancy dropped from 81.3 to 81.2 years of age for the same time period. While this may not seem drastic at first glance, any decrease in life expectancy in a highly advanced society like ours is cause for concern.

Potential Culprits of the Life Expectancy Drop

It seems counterintuitive that despite regular advances in medical care and continued progress in diagnostics and treatments, life expectancy is down and death rates for eight of the top 10 leading causes of death are up. Many researchers are asking themselves, “what gives?” And some believe that while “the classics” like heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, stroke and respiratory disease certainly played their part in mortality spikes, substance use disorders and mental health concerns may have had leading roles as well.

The numbers show a 6.7% increase in unintentional injuries and a 2.3 % increase in suicides. Some demographers and analysts are theorizing that at least a good portion of the unintentional injuries portion is due to drug overdoses tied to the opioid epidemic plaguing our country. It’s an epidemic that fueled 20,101 prescription painkiller overdose deaths and 12,990 heroin overdose deaths in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Furthermore, the data shows that the middle aged and young are the age groups that took the biggest hit. These are the same age groups that have shown a steady increase in opioid abuse in recent years.

As far as the increase in suicide rates, 90% of people who kill themselves have an underlying mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Research shows that depression has been steadily rising in America since the 1980s. Some demographers and sociologists have posited that the uptick in suicide rates could be tied to despair over the economic uncertainty of recent years.

We live in a country with a high quality of life and abundant resources. However, as our society continues to evolve and our resources grow there appears to be an inverse relationship with life expectancy and despair. This problem doesn’t seem to be going away. What can be done?

How People in Recovery Can Help

I believe that in addition to legislation making addiction and mental health treatment more accessible, people in recovery have the opportunity to make a difference. We can work together to decrease some of these problems plaguing our country because people in recovery have high rates of insight and they’ve been where some of these folks are now. A few ways to consider helping:

Reach out to others – This is an ideal time to make a renewed commitment to supporting our friends, families and colleagues. When we see suffering, we take time to show up, listen and provide support.

Be outspoken advocates – Despite the increased overdose rates, despite the increases in suicide and alcoholism, there are also increasing numbers of addicts living in long-term recovery. There’s a movement underway to change the stigma associated with mental illness and addiction. Still, stigma persists and it takes courage to speak up.

Embrace vulnerability – Our society is at a tipping point. We continue to advance our understanding of the cellular mechanisms underlying disease. We are finding better treatments to improve quality of life. However, as the pace of progress and technology expands and grows, our acceptance of imperfection and the vulnerability of our human condition continues to decrease. We need to learn that vulnerability is a strength, not a flaw. It takes courage to reach out for help and let people help you.

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