A report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics indicates a one-month decline from 2013 to 2014 in the average life expectancy of non-Hispanic white women (81.2 years to 81.1 years).
While these numbers do not seem extreme and do not include cause of death, National Center for Health Statistics demographer Elizabeth Arias investigated further. She discovered decreases in heart disease, cancer, and stroke—but those benefits were offset by an increase in suicide, liver disease, and substance overdose over the last 15 years.
This study arrives on the heels of a Princeton study reporting a rise in middle-aged white mortality rates, which researchers speculate could be due to increased suicides driven by a bad economy, as well as prescription, illegal drug, and alcohol overdoses.
Ellen Meara, a professor at Dartmouth’s Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice, said these findings are surprising. “These are people for whom life expectancy is falling—and that’s happening at a time where everywhere else and for every other group we’re seeing all these amazing gains in survival,” she says. The overall U.S. mortality rate has been declining at an average of 2% per year.
“This is a deeply concerning trend,” says CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden. “We shouldn’t see death rates going up in any group in society.”
Fortunately, there was also good news in the NCHS study: a reported increase in average life expectancy for non-Hispanic black men—from 71.8 to 72.2 years—during the same period. Scholars attribute this change to declining rates of heart disease, cancer death, and homicide.