Overdose Deaths Contribute to Decline in Life Expectancy

Deaths from Covid and drug overdoses contributed to an unprecedented drop in U.S. life expectancy rates.

Checking health of the United States flag, faded downtrending graph - Life Expectancy Decline concept

Recent research has shown an alarming drop in life expectancy worldwide. While the most obvious explanation for this, Covid-19, is responsible for the majority of the drop, many experts suggest that overdose deaths as a result of drug addiction had a major impact as well. In fact, in the United States, research has shown that drug addiction and resulting overdoses have had a negative impact on life expectancy since at least 2014.

Overall Life Expectancy Numbers

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report from 2021, U.S. life expectancy dropped 1.5 years from 2019 to 2020, with overall life expectancy falling to the lowest it’s been since 2003.1 While still provisional, data shows a drop of another half-year or more in 2021, indicating a 2.0-2.5 year drop in overall life expectancy since 2019.2 This alarming decline represents the largest decline in life expectancy since World War II.

“… last week NCHS reported an all-time high of over 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020.”

Doctors talking

Thankfully, there is clear evidence as to the cause of this drop. According to the CDC, “The decline in life expectancy between 2019 and 2020 can primarily be attributed to deaths from the pandemic, as COVID-19 deaths contributed to nearly three-fourths or 74% of the decline… Drug overdose deaths account for over one-third of all unintentional injury deaths, and last week NCHS reported an all-time high of over 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020.” And in a recent press release, the CDC announced that overdoses soared again in 2021, eclipsing 100,000 deaths for the first time since recording began and further pushing American life expectancy down.3

Young People More Likely to Die from a Fentanyl Overdose than Covid-19

Depressed young woman

Drug overdoses have contributed to a slowdown and reversal in American life expectancy since 2014. Dr. Mark S. Gold compiled research and wrote a paper that excerpted assorted data in this area. In Dr. Gold’s own words, “U.S. life expectancy, between 1959 and 2016, rose to 78.9 years from 69.9 years. But, following 2014, life expectancy began declining.” At this point, Dr. Gold went on to quote some of the research he reviewed, “A major contributor,’ this study’s author writes, ‘has been an increase in mortality from specific causes (e.g., drug overdoses, suicides, organ system diseases) among young and middle-aged adults of all racial groups, with an onset as early as the 1990s and with the largest relative increases occurring in the Ohio Valley and New England.” Fatal drug overdoses have clearly been detracting from the simple yet relevant metric of how long Americans are living.4

While Covid-19 has undoubtedly been the most devastating pandemic facing the American people in over a century, those who’ve died from the crisis have primarily been older Americans, particularly older Americans with preexisting health conditions. When older people die a year or two before the average age at which most Americans die, those deaths, while still tragic, do not impact overall life expectancy averages much. Conversely, when Americans die in their 20s, 30s, and 40s (long before they should), this does affect the overall average life expectancy considerably.5

With that in mind, it’s worth mentioning that Americans ages 18 to 45 are more likely to die from fentanyl overdoses than they are to die from Covid-19. Families Against Fentanyl published alarming data on this, indicating that fentanyl overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans in this age bracket. That means young Americans and middle-aged adult Americans are more likely to die from fentanyl overdoses than gun violence, car accidents, suicides, or even Covid-19.6

The above data was published around the same time that another critical research paper was published, this second one showing how teen drug overdose deaths have more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, again primarily because of fentanyl. There can be no doubting it, the drug addiction crisis is firmly suppressing American life expectancy primarily by causing tens of thousands of Americans to lose their lives long before their time.7

The Importance of Addiction Treatment

It’s fair to say that the most critical and basic metric of the overall health of a society is how long the people within that society are living. It’s not outlandish to say that developed nations should be experiencing a gradual increase in their life expectancy, not a decline. One could go so far as to say that a year-over-year drop in life expectancy is the sign of a failing society, or at the very least, an indicator of a serious danger that must be addressed.

The fatal nature of the American drug addiction epidemic and the fact that the addiction crisis is so extreme that it is now affecting overall American life expectancy is enough data to suggest all Americans must do their part to overcome the crisis. That means helping those who are addicted seek qualified drug and alcohol rehabilitation. It also means working on prevention and education efforts to ensure that others do not fall prey to addiction.


  1. NCBI. “The Role of Alcohol, Drugs, and Deaths of Despair in the U.S.’s Falling Life Expectancy.” 2020. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov ↩︎

  2. CDC. “Life Expectancy in the U.S. Declined a Year and Half in 2020.” 2021. cdc.gov ↩︎

  3. NPR. “U.S. life expectancy falls for 2nd year in a row.” 2022. npr.org ↩︎

  4. CDC. “U.S. Overdose Deaths In 2021 Increased Half as Much as in 2020 – But Are Still Up 15%.” 2022. cdc.gov ↩︎

  5. CDC. “Weekly Updates by Select Demographic and Geographic Characteristics.” 2022. cdc.gov ↩︎

  6. Families Against Fentanyl. “Fentanyl Fatalities.” 2020. www.familiesagainstfentanyl.org ↩︎

  7. JAMA Network. “Trends in Drug Overdose Deaths Among US Adolescents, January 2010 to June 2021.” 2022. jamanetwork.com ↩︎


After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective …
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