US life expectancy sees small increase, driven by drop in cancer, drug deaths

US life expectancy sees small increase, driven by drop in cancer, drug deaths
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Life expectancy in the U.S. saw a slight uptick for the first time since 2014 as deaths from drug overdoses and cancer dropped, according to new government reports issued Thursday.

Americans born in 2018 are expected to live 78.7 years, an increase of one month from the previous year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

The increase was mainly driven by fewer deaths from six leading causes of death, including cancer, heart disease, unintentional injuries, stroke, Alzheimer's and lower respiratory diseases. Cancer saw the biggest drop, from 152.5 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 to 149.1 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018. 

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But Americans' life expectancy is still lower than other peer nations, including Germany, Canada and France, according to the Commonwealth Fund.

Experts attribute the drop in cancer deaths to lower smoking rates and new treatments.

Deaths from drug overdoses also dropped in 2018 for the first time in nearly 30 years, mainly driven by decreases in heroin and prescription opioid overdoses.

Still, 67,367 people died from drug overdoses last year, the second-highest number recorded. Overdose deaths for cocaine and synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, increased.

Declines in drug and cancer fatalities were offset by increases in deaths from suicide, flu and pneumonia.

Public health experts consider suicide to be a public health crisis, and the numbers released Thursday will give greater cause for concern.

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The suicide rate increased by 1.4 percent to 48,344 deaths in 2018, continuing a decades-long upward trend.

Advocates argue that deaths by suicide are not treated with the same sense of urgency as other leading causes of death. 

"Suicide must be addressed on the same level, and with the same urgency, as we address other public health issues, such as drug overdoses, heart disease, cancer, stroke, or HIV/AIDS — all of which have seen a decrease in rates following years of concentrated national efforts," said a statement from the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.  

Meanwhile, the death rate for flu and pneumonia increased by 4.2 percent. 

Life expectancy continued to be higher for females in 2018 at 81.2 years, compared to 76.2 years for males.

This developing report was updated at 8:59 a.m.