RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We have sobering news this morning about the nation's health. For the first time in years, life expectancy has decreased. Here's NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: One of the most fundamental ways to measure the well-being of a nation is to track the rate at which its citizens are dying and how long they tend to live. And Robert Anderson of the National Center for Health Statistics says the trend in the United States has been pretty consistent.
ROBERT ANDERSON: Over the last hundred years that we've been tracking these things, the death rate's declined pretty steadily with, you know, minor upticks here and there. But the trend long-term has been a decline.
STEIN: Leading to a fairly steady rise in how long people can expect to live. So Anderson was taken aback when he analyzed the government's latest data.
ANDERSON: What we're seeing is a slight increase in the overall rate for mortality.
STEIN: It ticked up just slightly between 2014 and 2015. That's the first time that's happened in a decade. And it was enough to cause the overall life expectancy to dip slightly for the first time since 1993.
ANDERSON: What we're seeing is a slight decline in overall life expectancy at birth, about a tenth of a year.
STEIN: It fell from 78.9 to 78.8 years in 2015. And even more disturbing in some ways, the drop occurred in the younger part of the population, not the oldest. Now, it's not clear why this is happening and it could just be a fluke. But the drop was driven by increases in deaths from 8 of the top 10 causes of death. Most notably, deaths from heart disease and strokes were up after declining for years. And more Americans are dying from unintentional injuries and committing suicide.
ANDERSON: When you see increases in so many of the leading causes of death, it's difficult to pinpoint one particular cause as the culprit.
STEIN: But it's probably a combination of factors. The obesity epidemic may be one, the epidemic of prescription painkiller and heroin overdoses may be another. But whatever the cause, experts say it's worrisome.
PHILIP MORGAN: This is a big deal.
STEIN: Philip Morgan is a demographer at the University of North Carolina.
MORGAN: There's not a better indicator of well-being than life expectancy. And most people expected it to go up several more years and in the next half-century. And for the effect that it's leveling off in the U.S., it's a striking finding.
STEIN: Especially when the death rate is continuing to drop and life expectancy is still on the rise in most other industrialized countries. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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