New data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) this month showed that Americans’ life expectancy fell from 2014 to 2015, from 78.9 years to 78.8 years. Though this may sound like a trivial change, declines in life expectancy are rare in the developed world outside of periods of war or national crisis. For the United States, last year’s was the first such decline since the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Much of the attention given to this phenomenon has understandably focused on rising rates of drug overdoses, particularly opioids. The opioid epidemic led to more than 33,000 deaths last year alone and has devastated families and communities in every corner of the country. Sadly, suicide and alcohol-related deaths also have become more common in recent years—part of a rise in what Princeton economist Anne Case has called “deaths by despair.”
However, drugs, alcohol, and suicide do not, on their own, explain our declining life expectancy. As the new CDC data show, these factors accounted for only about 30 percent of the overall rise in mortality from 2014 to 2015.1 Death rates also rose for eight of the top 10 causes of death—including heart disease, America’s number-one killer.“Deaths by despair” simply aren’t enough to tell the whole story.