Are opioid deaths reducing our average life expectancy? Canada now investigating
Canada is investigating whether the opioid crisis that has killed thousands across the country is dragging down how long people are expected to live.
The Public Health Agency of Canada confirms it is looking into opioid-related overdoses and how it might be affecting the average life expectancy, a trend which has occurred in the U.S.
Rebecca Purdy, a spokesperson for the federal health agency, said the calculations are complex, but help contextualize the effects of a health event on a population.
“Now that more opioid-related mortality data are available at the national level, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) plans to undertake a robust life expectancy analysis in the coming months, and results will be disseminated,” Purdy said in an email.
Life expectancy can reflect how healthy a country’s general population is, taking into account things like health care, lifestyle, obesity rates and rates of diseases. Currently, a person born in 2017 is expected to live to just over 82 years (79 years for men and 83 years for women), according to the latest data from Statistics Canada. In 1980, that number was just over 77 years.
Those numbers are lower for Canada’s Indigenous population, with the Inuit having the lowest projected life expectancy of 64 years for men and 73 years for women. Métis and First Nations populations have similar life expectancies, at 73-74 years for men and 78-80 years for women.
Drug-overdose deaths have skyrocketed in the U.S., jumping to 63,600 drug deaths in 2016, up from roughly 52,000 in 2015. An analysis from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that U.S. life expectancy fell from 78.9 in 2014 to 78.6 in 2016. The last time the U.S. life expectancy dropped was due to the AIDS epidemic in 1993.
Canada could see the same trend as opioid-related deaths have continued to rise, devastating communities across the country.
For workers on the frontlines of the crisis, a shortened average life expectancy would be “no surprise.”
“It’s what we would expect given the data that has emerged from the U.S.A over the last few years,” Michael Parkinson, community engagement coordinator for the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council, told Global News. “It’s important to substantiate what many have long suspected that overdoses disproportionately affect people in lower socioeconomic classes.”
Parkinson said while it’s important to have data to guide interventions, all levels of government have been slow to react to this public health emergency.
“We’ve had compelling data for many years and the response has not been proportional to the way Canada treats other important but less common forms of death and injury,” he said. “This may be the worst drug-poisoning crisis in Canadian history and the U.S.A.”
Life expectancy decreasing in B.C.
The latest figures from PHAC found that nearly 4,000 Canadians died from opioid overdoses in 2017 — an increase of 34 per cent from the year before. Most of these deaths were accidental, and the vast majority involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues — 72 per cent.
Purdy said while the results of the life-expectancy analysis will be made public once it’s finished, B.C. — a province that has been ground zero for the crisis — has already looked at the toll of the opioid scourge.
A report from the Office of the Provincial Health Officer and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control found that life expectancy figures decreased from 83.02 years in 2014 to 82.64 in 2016.
“The life expectancy at birth for people in B.C. increased by three years between 2001 and 2014, but decreased by 0.38 years from 2014 to 2016,” the report said. “The opioid overdose crisis was an important contributor to this loss.”
The report also found a higher death rate from opioid overdoses was a major contributor to a shorter life expectancy among men compared to women, and shortened the life for people from the “most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities.”
“This should further our resolve to address this largely preventable cause of death.”
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