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Study: Opioid crisis cuts U.S. life expectancy rates

New Hampshire Union Leader

September 25. 2017 11:50PM
Four hundred eighty-nine purple flags were arranged earlier this month at Derry's MacGregor Park in the shape of a heart, one for each drug-related death in New Hampshire last year. (CHRIS GAROFOLO/CORRESPONDENT)

The scope of the opioid epidemic has increased to the point of cutting into U.S. life expectancy rates, according to a new study.

The study, published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the mounting number of deaths from opioid overdoses has taken 2.5 months off what had been a steady increase in life expectancy from 2000 to 2015.

Health officials in New Hampshire said the findings illustrate just how large the problem has become and why stemming the alarming statistics is a priority in the Granite State and nationwide.

“We’ve just seen our death rates really increasing in ways that I don’t think any of us could have fully imagined four or five years ago,” said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health Services.

While New Hampshire ranks in the top 10 among states with the longest life expectancies — at 80.1 years — it is also one of the states hit hardest by the epidemic, which has led to increasing overdose deaths in each of the last few years.

According to the study, conducted by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, the average U.S. life expectancy increased from about 76 years to 78 years from 2000 to 2015. Over that same period, opioid overdoses more than tripled, the study found, and the steady improvement in one area was more than offset by the other.

“Preventing opioid-related poisoning deaths will be important to achieving more robust increases in life expectancy once again,” the study’s authors wrote.

In New Hampshire, Tilley said the focus continues to be on reducing overdose deaths.

“I think that the study is important to raise this topic and to be thinking about overall life expectancy in the state and to see the impact one thing may have on it,” Tilley said. “In my experience in public health, rarely do we see that kind of increase in much of anything that quickly, so this certainly is having an impact on the overall health of the state.”

The Granite State figures have spiked dramatically in the last five years as abuse has shifted from prescription pills and heroin to fentanyl, a synthetic pain killer significantly more potent than morphine.

According to figures released this month by the New Hampshire Chief Medical Examiner’s office, 485 people in New Hampshire died from drug overdoses in 2016, nearly 50 more than the 2015 total of 439.

In 2012, New Hampshire had 163 overdose deaths. The state reported 192 in 2013, then a surge to 332 in 2014. With such large totals, Tilley said the JAMA findings make sense in showing an impact on overall life-expectancy rates in the country. She expects additional studies will show that the epidemic is having significant affects on other aspects of the nation’s health.

Tilley said losing young adults — from 20s to early 30s — at such a high rate is frightening.

“That’s what I think has been so compelling about the opioid deaths,” she said. “It’s young adults in the prime of their lives, when they should be active members of our community actively in the workforce with young families. That’s what we would hope to see for people in their late 20s and early 30s.”

Tilley said it’s important for New Hampshire to continue concentrating on treatment options and increasing prevention measures.

“In general, really what New Hampshire has been focused on is how to turn the tide and move this into a difference direction,” she said. “There’s room for a lot of people to be working on this issue and I think New Hampshire has been working hard to help coordinate all those efforts.

“There are a lot of moving parts and it will continue to take some skilled orchestration to keep us all moving together in harmony.”

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