Average life expectancy in the U.S. fell in 2015 for the first time since 1993, the peak of the AIDS pandemic, the National Center for Health Statistics reported Dec. 8. The center cited rising fatalities from heart disease, stroke, diabetes and drug overdoses — particularly among those middle-aged or younger — to explain the drop to 78.8 years, from 78.9 in 2014.
This follows a study a year earlier that found a sharp rise in mortality rates among middle-aged workers who are Caucasian. “That trend was blamed on what are sometimes called diseases of despair: overdoses, alcoholism and suicide,” noted the Washington Post.
Opioid overdoses have reached crisis proportions nationwide, in urban centers and even more so in rural areas. Over 28,000 people died from these drugs in 2014, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than double the total from a decade earlier. Many who become addicted to doctor-prescribed pain killers such as Oxycontin or Demerol then turn to heroin or synthetic opioid drugs such as fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Heroin-related overdoses have nearly quadrupled over the past decade, and last year outnumbered gun deaths.
In 2015 more than 12,000 people died of overdoses in just 10 states — Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio — according to the Wall Street Journal. Fentanyl-related deaths across those states soared 128 percent from the previous year to nearly 4,000. Nationwide it rose to 9,580 last year.
In Huntington, West Virginia, with a population of 49,000, local health officials say some 12,000 people are hooked on heroin or another opioid. In a state devastated by the layoff of tens of thousands of coal miners, drug overdose deaths are the highest in the nation.
Pharmaceutical companies promoting opioid pain killer drugs as well as small-scale illicit drug labs producing fentanyl and other synthetic narcotics are reaping big profits while addicted workers pay, in growing numbers with their lives.
The spread of these drugs is tied to the fact that eight years into an official economic “recovery,” millions of workers face declining median family income and lack of decent-paying full-time jobs. Today more than 11 percent of men between the ages of 25 and 54 are not part of the workforce, compared to less than 4 percent in the 1950s.
Drug dependent newborns rises in rural areas
Fueled by an increase in opioid use among women, more infants are born drug dependent. This now affects about one out of every 130 babies in rural areas nationwide, according to a Dec. 12 report by JAMA Pediatrics. The condition, known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, where the newborn has to go through drug withdrawal after birth, has skyrocketed in rural areas over the past decade from 1.2 per every 1,000 hospital births to 7.5 per 1,000. In urban areas the rate has risen from 1.4 to 4.8 per 1,000.
Little medical care is being provided to those struggling to deal with drug addiction. Only 20 percent received any treatment in 2014, according to a government survey. At the same time, increased numbers of children are being removed from parental custody and placed with relatives or in foster homes. In Vermont this rose 40 percent between 2013 and 2016, according to the state’s Department for Children and Families. In West Virginia, foster care cases rose 24 percent over the past four years.
Another aspect of the economic crisis is the drop in workers’ income over generations. In the early 1970s, nearly all 30-year-olds earned more, adjusted for inflation, than their parents had at the same age. But today, with real wages for working people stagnant for decades, about half of 30-year-olds earn less than their parents had. This trend continues if you compare 40-year-olds, according to a recent study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
As a result, almost 40 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 are living with their parents or other family members, the highest percentage since 1940.
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