US life expectancy at birth has declined for a second year running, the first such two-year drop since the early 1960s, fueled by an escalating opioid crisis, statistics revealed Thursday.
The overall US life expectancy in 2016 was 78.6 years, a fall of 0.1 year from 78.7 in 2015, said the report by the National Center for Health Statistics.
It was the first time overall life expectancy in the United States has declined two years in a row since 1962-63, and before that it happened in the 1920s, officials said.
"Two years in a row is quite shocking," Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the National Center for Health Statistics, told AFP.
"The key factor in all this is the increase in drug overdose deaths."
In 2016, 63,600 people died from a drug overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That works out to an average of 174 Americans a day.
The drug overdose death rate in 2016 was three times greater than in 1999, in a crisis that cuts across gender, race, geography and all demographic groups.
"We've got some problems and we need to get our act together and take care of them. The drug overdose should be a completely preventable cause of death and we need to do something about it," said Anderson.
Life expectancy for men was 76.1, a decrease of 0.2 year, with non-Hispanic black men most impacted. Women's life expectancy remained the same at 81.1 years.
The overall downward trend offers a glaring contrast to a global five-year increase in life expectancy from 2000 to 2015 cited by the World Health Organization.
The 2016 US death rate increased 9.7 percent for unintentional injuries, 3.1 percent for Alzheimer's, partly due to an aging population, and 1.5 percent for suicide.
Unintentional drug overdoses account for a third of the unintentional injury category but three-quarters of its increase, Anderson said.
On the upside, death rates decreased for seven of the 10 leading causes of death, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and diabetes.
"If those hadn't declined to the extent they did then of course things would look worse," said Anderson.
But a levelling off in declining cardio-vascular mortality has given drug overdose increases a greater role in pushing down the overall life expectancy.
"A lot of the decline that we saw over the last 50-60 years has been due to declines in smoking and maybe we're kind of bottoming out in terms of what we can do," said Anderson.
The previous drop in life expectancy at birth for the overall US population was in 1993, at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Women in Japan currently have the longest average lifespan at 86.8 years, while men in Switzerland can anticipate 81.3 years.
Sierra Leone has the lowest life expectancy, with women at 50.8 years and men at 49.3.