U.S. life expectancy decreases as overdose, suicide fatalities increase

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COLUMBIA - Life expectancy in the United States dropped to 78.6 years between 2016 and 2017, a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows.

This is the third consecutive year the U.S. has seen a decrease, and increasing suicide and drug overdose deaths are major contributors. Opioids specifically caused the most amount of overdoses.

There were more than 70,000 fatal drug overdoses in 2017, reaching a record high. Opioid related deaths increased 45 percent.

In Mid-Missouri, doctors and crisis workers said efforts are being made, but more needs to be done.

"Right now, a lot is being done to tackle the problem of opioid addiction and opioid overdose," said Dr. Lucas Buffaloe, family medicine physician at MU Health Care. "We have started with educating physicians on responsible opioid prescribing, hopefully exposing fewer people to opioids and reduce the risk of opioid addiction later on in life."

However, he said treating people for addiction and having access to treatment has been a struggle.

"That's been a big challenge, finding enough physicians and other medical care providers to provide that kind of care for patients, but we are making progress there," he said.

Buffaloe said there are efforts to get nalaxone, commonly known as Narcan, into the community as well.

"Right now one of the biggest challenges is making sure that when someone who is struggling with opioid addiction is interested in finding treatment, that they are actually able to get that treatment," Buffaloe said. "There are a lot of barriers in the way of finding treatment: a shortage of physicians who are prescribing medications to help with treatment, a shortage of programs that provide rehabilitation services."

He said there are also geographic disparities.

"It's difficult to access these services in rural areas. In many cases, people have to drive long distances in order to find the services they need. So the biggest thing that we have to change is making those services more accessible where people need them and when people need them," he said.

Carisa Kessler is the director of crisis services at Burrell Behavioral Health in Columbia. She meets clients where they are to help address issues that come up throughout the day. 

She said the most important thing for people to do in regards to suicide, is to talk about it.

"A lot of people think it's a taboo subject that they don't want to bring it up, and if I bring it up, that will make them think about suicide," she said. "In reality, that's just not true. If you have concerns about a friend or family member, talk to them about it. Encourage them to reach out. Help them reach out. Don't ignore the problem."

Kessler said Burrell is currently increasing the therapies and treatments it offers and the hours it is accessible. She said expanding services is just one way to make improvements.

"I think the main things we can do right now is education and continuing to offer education, help people learn how to become more familiar with signs, and even helping them learn how to approach and how to ask that question," she said.

The rate of suicide increased by 3.7 percent. However, there was a much larger increase in rural communities compared to urban communities. Buffaloe noted these geographic disparities in regards to suicide as well.

"These are communities that we have not seen economic recovery since the recession. These are communities where there is not as much economic opportunity, where people really are struggling. And these are also places where people have difficulty accessing mental health services" he said.

He said having more money to fight these issues would be helpful.

"Ideally we would have more funding to put mental health services in those rural communities. That may be counselors, therapists, or ideally we would have doctors in those communities to prescribe medication when needed," he said.

To read more about the specifics of the CDC's three reports on life expectancy, suicide deaths and drug overdose deaths, click here.