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For the first time in four years, the average lifespan of an American increased - slightly. That's according to new numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The improvement was driven largely by declines in cancer deaths as well as the first-ever decrease in drug overdose deaths in this century. NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee reports.
RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: The annual CDC report lists the latest numbers on life expectancy and death rates by causes from the year 2018. The average lifespan that year was 78.7 years, about a month longer than the previous year. The CDC's Bob Anderson says that the improvement is due partly to a 4% decrease in drug overdose deaths.
BOB ANDERSON: This is the first time that drug overdose deaths - the number of deaths has declined in 28 years, since 1990.
CHATTERJEE: That decline was mostly for deaths involving natural and semi-synthetic opioids.
ANDERSON: This includes drugs like oxycodone, which are commonly available by prescription. We saw declines in deaths involving methadone and even heroin.
KATHRYN MCHUGH: It's certainly good news to see these numbers decrease for the first time in decades.
CHATTERJEE: Kate McHugh is a psychologist at McLean Hospital and Harvard University.
MCHUGH: I think these numbers suggest that some positive news is starting to come out of the many efforts to try to stem the tide on overdoses. But we certainly can't take our foot off the gas.
CHATTERJEE: That's because, she says, the improvement was modest. And more than 67,000 people still died from drug overdoses in 2018.
MCHUGH: Sixty-seven thousand deaths is still a tremendously high number of fatalities.
CHATTERJEE: Many of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, which have continued to claim a growing number of lives in recent years. The new report also found rising death rates due to cocaine, methamphetamine and other stimulants. And the CDC's Bob Anderson points out that people are now increasingly using a mix of drugs.
ANDERSON: It's fairly common to see fentanyl and methamphetamine, for example, or fentanyl and cocaine mixed together.
CHATTERJEE: That's a big cause for concern, says Dr. Dan Ciccarone, an addiction medicine specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
DANIEL CICCARONE: The crisis deepens because of the poly-drug phenomenon.
CHATTERJEE: In order to curb the rise in all overdose deaths, he says, a new approach is needed.
CICCARONE: We have to move away from this understanding that we're just going to treat it as, let's stop the opioid pills; let's stop the excess prescribing.
CHATTERJEE: Ciccarone says there's a need to address what's driving the demand for these drugs.
CICCARONE: There's a large amount of social, economic, spiritual despair in this country.
CHATTERJEE: Addressing that despair, he says, can prevent more people from turning to these drugs in the first place.
CICCARONE: That means healing our communities, making them less fragmented, working on social isolation, working on economic development, working on parts of the country that are still kind of left behind.
CHATTERJEE: Rhitu Chatterjee, NPR News.
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