American Life Expectancy Fell Again in 2021—Drug Addiction Played a Significant Role in the Decline

This article highlights the recent CDC report focusing on how, though drug overdose deaths are 100% preventable, they continue to increase, claiming more lives each year and causing particular harm to younger generations.


The most critical metric in measuring a society’s health is determining whether people within that society are living longer than people in previous generations. For the second year, U.S. life expectancy has declined, indicating a reversal in America’s societal progress. Not only is life expectancy at its lowest since the mid-1990s, but the two-year decline also represents the first time American life expectancy has fallen this precipitously since the mid-1910s when Spanish Influenza and World War I reduced life expectancy for millions.

The CDC Makes a Grave Announcement Regarding Life Expectancy

In August 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the life expectancy of U.S. residents shifted between 2020 and 2021, falling by nearly a year after already suffering a decline from 2019 to 2020. In 2019, Americans were expected to live about 78.8 years. But in 2020, life expectancy fell by 1.8 years, bringing the average lifespan down to 77. Then, in 2021, life expectancy fell again, this time by 0.9 years. Today, the average American is only expected to live to be 76.1 years old.1

“Drug overdose deaths account for nearly half of all unintentional injury deaths.”

While the CDC recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to much of the decline—74% from 2019 to 2020 and 50% from 2020 to 2021—the CDC report also pointed out how serious accidents and unintentional injuries from overdoses were major factors. Quoting the research authors, “An estimated 16% of the decline in life expectancy from 2020 to 2021 can be attributed to increases in deaths from accidents/unintentional injuries. Drug overdose deaths account for nearly half of all unintentional injury deaths.” Heart disease, chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, and suicide were also major factors in reducing life expectancy.

It’s also worth mentioning that CDC research authors believe their findings regarding drug overdoses are underestimated, meaning fatal drug encounters likely had a more significant impact on life expectancy than the report shows. Quoting the authors, “Deaths requiring investigation, including infant deaths and those from external injuries and drug overdose may be underestimated.” Further, the authors also pointed out how, while most forms of fatal accidents and unintentional injuries increased from 2020 to 2021, the most significant increase in this category was from drug overdose deaths.2

Drug Overdoses are Now Recognized as a Leading Cause of Death in the U.S.

Paramedics saving live

While public health officials have long held that life expectancy is primarily determined by current age, sex, race, ethnicity, and where in the U.S. people live, CDC life expectancy experts and Harvard Medical School researchers are now recognizing drug addiction, substance abuse, and drug and alcohol exposures more generally as being significant predictors of life expectancy.

While age, sex, race, ethnicity, geographic location, and financial security are still the most prominent predictors of life expectancy, medical scholars encourage Americans to care for their health, as other factors can cut life short, even for people who seem healthy. Robert H. Shmerling, MD, Senior Faculty Editor at Harvard Health Publishing, spoke to this point. “COVID-19, drug overdoses, and accidental injury accounted for about two-thirds of the decline in life expectancy. Other reasons included heart and liver disease and suicides.” And while COVID-19 deaths have been mostly reigned in, drug overdose deaths are rising and show no signs of abating.3

Sadly, because of factors like drug overdoses and alcohol cirrhosis, American life expectancy is now the lowest it’s been since 1996.

The CDC report also laid out what share of American deaths is claimed by drug overdoses to show how much this problem affects the overall death rate. According to the data, 879.7 Americans died in 2021 for every 100,000 living in the country. That figure is up from 835.4 deaths for every 100,000. Overdose deaths (not counting alcohol, just drugs) accounted for 32.4 deaths per 100,000 in 2021, up from 28.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2020.4

Qualified Addiction Treatment Needed to Reduce Drug Deaths

Drug and alcohol rehab centers have the staff and environment necessary to help recovering addicts get to the bottom of what caused them to use mind-altering substances as coping mechanisms. Such programs provide a pathway to a better life, empowering those in recovery with the abilities, strategies, and tools to face life without turning to drugs and alcohol.

It is particularly despairing that one of the leading causes of death in the United States, i.e., drug overdoses and alcohol poisoning, is 100% preventable. If you know someone using drugs and alcohol who cannot stop, please do everything you can to get them help. Please don’t wait until it is too late. Contact a qualified drug rehab center today.


  1. CDC. “Life Expectancy in the U.S. Dropped for the Second Year in a Row in 2021.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. ↩︎

  2. CDC. “Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates for 2021.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. ↩︎

  3. HHP. “Why life expectancy in the U.S. is falling.” Harvard Health Publishing, 2022. ↩︎

  4. USNews. “Another Big Drop in U.S. Life Expectancy in 2021.” U.S. News, 2022. ↩︎