Once again the USA has seen its life expectancy numbers drop. The average expected lifespan of an American born in 2017 was lower than the year before. This makes a trend – for three years now the life span has been dropping slightly: 2017 was worse than 2016 was worse than 2015 was worse than 2014. From just under 79 years three years ago, the average lifespan of an American born in 2017 is now 78 years and 7 months.

What is driving this downward trend? Well, it is largely an increase in the causes of death that we have talked about before on this blog: suicides and drug overdoses. According to vox.com, 70,000 Americans died last year from drug overdoses – this was the highest number of drug overdose deaths for any single year in US history. One in forty deaths last year in the USA were due to drug overdoses.  In terms of the age-adjusted overdose death rate, the rate of 21.7 per 100,000 people was 10 per cent higher than the comparable rate in 2016. And in terms of distribution of drug overdose deaths, it is the rust belt and New England which are worst affected areas of the USA: the three states with the highest rates of drug overdose deaths were West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Within these numbers, the leading cause of overdose deaths was “non-methadone synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyls that have increasingly supplanted heroin in the illicit market”. Deaths involving fentanyls increased by 45 per cent in 2017 alone.

Alongside this increase in drug overdose deaths, suicides also rose in 2017 by nearly four per cent to 47,000. Increases in suicides were concentrated in rural America and among middle-aged women, though the largest number of suicides are still committed by men rather than by women.

The only sign of hope is that the preliminary numbers for 2018 suggest that overdose death rates may have peaked and are levelling off. However, even this gleam of light is small – this would leave overdose deaths at record levels. These record levels are higher than deaths from HIV (46,000 in 1995), car crash deaths (54,000 in 1972) and gun deaths (40,000 in 1993) reached at their respective peaks. Until that death rate comes down, the signs for US health overall (whether physically or spiritually) are unlikely to improve.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...