Tony Bernhardt, 74, winced in pain during his visit with Dr. John Downey in Augusta on Oct. 24. Bernhardt was looking for alternatives to surgery. Downey credits Georgia’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program or PDMP with helping reduce drug overdose deaths in Georgia. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Life expectancy inches up in U.S. amid drop in drug overdose deaths

Life expectancy in the United States has increased for the first time in four years, according to new federal figures, prompting cautious optimism among public health officials in Georgia and across the nation following an alarming spike in drug overdose deaths.

Americans were expected to live 78.7 years in 2018, a small increase — just over a month — from 78.6 in 2017. That came after an ominous decline of 0.3 years between 2014 and 2017. Women were expected to live 81.2 years, five years longer than men.

“We don’t know if this is the start of a new trend of increases in life expectancy and a continued decline in deaths due to overdoses, but it is positive,” said Elizabeth Arias, a demographer for the National Center for Health Statistics, which released the report Thursday.

The center did not provide state-by-state figures. But Georgia ranked 42nd among the states and the District of Columbia in 2016 with a life expectancy for its residents at 74.8 years, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle.

The nationwide boost in life expectancy came as rates for most of the top 10 leading causes of death fell, including heart disease, cancer and “unintentional injuries,” such as drug overdoses and car crashes.

Overdoses killed a record 70,237 Americans across the nation in 2017. That number fell by 4% to 67,367 in 2018. Georgia was among 14 states where the drug overdose death rate dropped during that timeframe. Opioid-related overdose deaths fell by 17% in the Peach State between 2017 and 2018, from 1,051 to 876.

A substantial drop in prescriptions for opioids, including hydrocodone and oxycodone, in Georgia and the increasing prevalence of Narcan — an overdose reversal medication — are factors, said Jim Langford, executive director of the Georgia Prevention Project, an Atlanta-based drug abuse prevention group.

“We are still analyzing the data to see how much of that is related to actual less use — or is it just that we have done a better job of reviving people who have overdosed?” he said.

Related: Opioid prescription totals falling in Georgia amid deadly epidemic

Another big factor is a state law requiring Georgia doctors and dentists to check a database to see what prescriptions patients have recently filled before prescribing them opioids and other drugs, said Dr. John Downey, who treats pain patients in Augusta. Called the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, or PDMP, the database aids doctors in identifying patients who already have been prescribed dangerous amounts or combinations of drugs.

“In 20 seconds, you can see a list of their medicines and their providers and when they got their last prescriptions filled,” said Downey, who leads a committee overseeing Georgia’s PDMP. “It is invaluable as far taking good care of patients that are in pain.”

More: Georgia pain doctor stays busy amid opioid abuse epidemic

There were also some troubling signs in the federal statistics released this week. Between 2017 and 2018, the U.S. death rate tied to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids jumped by 10%. Provisional data show it rose through June of last year as well. The overdose death rate more than tripled for cocaine and more than quadrupled for psychostimulants — mostly methamphetamine — from 2012 to 2018.

Dr. Justine Welsh, who directs Emory Healthcare’s addiction services, noted the U.S. suicide death rate per 100,000 people rose between 2017 and 2018 from 14.0 to 14.2.

“We need more attention and focus on addressing suicide,” she said, “including access to affordable mental health and substance-related treatment.”

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