Ahlin: Losing life expectancy

Jane Ahlin.jpg

Drugs took her life. Her parents, siblings, extended family and friends find themselves thrust into a nightmare.

No doubt on some level they’d acknowledged such a thing could happen. Yet the reality of her death is quite different from living with the troubling uncertainty that accompanies addiction, particularly because she’d been better in recent months. (She was only in her twenties.) She was doing well and there was hope she was on the road to a long, good life.

For those who loved her, their fall from hope to an abyss of loss and grief is intensely personal. And yet, her death also stands with thousands and thousands and thousands of others, signifying a generation our society has failed.

At the end of November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released alarming statistics. For the past three years, life expectancy for U.S. citizens has declined or stayed flat. As reported in USA Today, CDC director Robert Redfield referenced those historically unusual statistics by writing, “Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdoses and suicide.”

Put simply, so many people—primarily young people—are dying from drug overdoses and suicides that overall life expectancy rates for America’s 325 million people have been affected. Indeed, the number of drug overdose deaths in 2017 topped 70,000, up from about 64,000 in 2016. (Suicides topped 47,000.)


Two-thirds of those 70,000-plus deaths in 2017 were due to opioids. (I heard one official say that’s like “a 9/11” every two weeks.) The question is, how do we stem that tide?

We are further along in figuring out how we ended up in this mess. Begin with Big Pharma, which in the 1990s convinced physicians to treat all pain as something opioids could relieve. Pain became a “fifth vital sign.” (Think faces with expressions from extremely happy to extremely miserable and being asked which face fit our pain level.) Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that from 1999 to 2014 sales of pain medications quadrupled.

Suddenly opiates were treated as cure-alls instead of dangerous drugs. After routine surgeries patients were sent home with enough opiates for weeks, although post-surgical pain was expected to last a few days. Worse, people with chronic pain were prescribed opioids, which we now know didn’t work for chronic pain.

And sadly, parents who understood teenagers might get into the liquor cabinet never considered they’d raid the medicine cabinet. Nor did most consider that heroin would turn out to be the “cheaper” choice once addiction took hold. Still, we’ve begun understanding that addiction is a disease and that treatment and methadone clinics are important.

The elephant in the room, however, is our inability to figure out why our society—our culture—makes young people feel a desperate need to escape. What is it that makes living so difficult that drugs and suicide are alluring? Why do they give in or give up when their lives have only just begun?

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