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How opioid abuse is lowering our average life expectancy
Normally, life expectancy increases every year. For Americans, the opioid epidemic is changing that.
- Americans' life expectancy dropped between 2014 and 2017, a significant downtrend that hasn't been seen since World War I.
- An analysis by the CDC identified the opioid epidemic as the cause.
- How did the opioid epidemic get so bad, and what can we do to stop it?
The collective health of Americans is taking a turn for the worse. In 2014, the average life expectancy for an American was 78.8 years, which is already lower than many other developed countries such as Japan, France, and the UK. Since then, that number has been steadily dropping. In 2017, the last year for which data is available, the average life expectancy was 78.6 years. To put this in perspective, life expectancy has always generally increased; the last time there was a significant drop in life expectancy occurred between 1915 and 1918 as a result of World War I and a devastating flu pandemic.
What's our lifespans to drop this time? According to Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control, opioid overdoses are to blame.
The three waves of the opioid epidemic
The number of deaths due to drug overdoses have doubled in a decade, with 36,010 deaths in 2007 and 70,237 in 2017. To account for this sharp increase, we have to look back to the 1990s, when opioids first started being prescribed en masse. There are three reasons why opioids became so frequently prescribed during this time.
First, the US's private health insurance system incentivizes the prescription of pills. Paying for pills is an attractive option for health insurance companies, as they're often cheaper and faster acting than repeat treatments, like physical therapy — though often less effective in the long term.
Second, pharmaceutical companies spend a considerable amount of effort on making their products attractive to doctors and health insurance companies. They often buy dinners and host conferences in an effort to convince doctors to prescribe their medication more frequently. Research has shown that this tactic is effective; doctors who receive free lunches from pharmaceutical representatives are more likely to prescribe the related medication.
Third, as part of their effort to sell more of their product, pharmaceutical manufacturers exaggerated the benefits of opioids, minimized the downsides, and lobbied the government to loosen regulation. Combined, these three factors caused the 90s' absurdly high levels of opioid prescription. But this was only the first wave of the opioid epidemic.
The second wave occurred around 2010, once we started to realize the considerable harm we were inflicting on ourselves by overprescribing opioids. We became stricter when it came to prescribing opioids, cutting off the supply for a number of addicted individuals. This restriction in access coupled with pharmaceutical pills' comparatively higher price tag persuaded addicted people to use heroin instead. Between 2002 and 2013, heroin-related overdoses increased by 286%.
The third and current wave of the opioid epidemic began around 2013 when synthetic opioids began to hit the market. The most infamous of these is fentanyl. Two milligrams of fentanyl, an incredibly small amount, can be a fatal dose for most people. It is also significantly cheaper to manufacture than heroin, and heroin is often laced with fentanyl as a result.
A lethal dose of fentanyl is presented next to a penny for scale.
United States Drug Enforcement Administration
What can be done?
Though the opioid epidemic may have grown into a beast large enough to reduce overall life expectancy, this doesn't mean it can't be stopped. Experts believe there are some sound strategies to ending the opioid epidemic once and for all, such as by rethinking opioid prescription practices and regulation. The current opioid epidemic began because of the over-prescription of pain relievers — these drugs are medically necessary, but only for a limited number of conditions. Regulation should be based on the medical evidence of prescription pills' efficacy.
In addition to preventing addiction from happening in the first place, we can do more to help those already addicted to opioids. For instance, we can increase funding for and the availability of naloxone, a drug that's remarkably efficacious at reversing opioid overdoses, and by implementing needle exchange programs.
When treating addiction, we also need to acknowledge that it's a condition that doesn't end once an individual is "clean." Addiction is a chronic condition, one that often lasts for a lifetime. This understanding needs to be reflected both within the medical community and health insurance companies. Medication-assisted treatment, or MAT, combines behavioral therapy with medication like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone, and its been shown to be remarkably effective at treating opioid addiction. However, not all insurance plans support treatments like MAT. At the very least, it should be covered under state Medicaid programs. Some Medicaid programs do cover the medications needed for MAT, though the implementation leaves much to be desired.
There are numerous additional ways that we can combat the addiction epidemic, like criminal justice reform or health care reform, but none of these changes will occur overnight, and certainly none will occur without sufficient political will. The question is, are our shrinking lifespans motivation enough?
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Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.
- The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
- The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
- It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
The Red Sea area where Neom will be built:
Saudi Arabia Plans Futuristic City, "Neom" (Full Promotional Video)<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c646d528d230c1bf66c75422bc4ccf6f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/N53DzL3_BHA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
A growing body of research suggests COVID-19 can cause serious neurological problems.
- The new study seeks to track the health of 50,000 people who have tested positive for COVID-19.
- The study aims to explore whether the disease causes cognitive impairment and other conditions.
- Recent research suggests that COVID-19 can, directly or indirectly, cause brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage and other neurological problems.
Brain images of a patient with acute demyelinating encephalomyelitis.
COVID-19 and the brain<p>A growing body of research reveals alarming neurological complications among COVID-19 patients. On Wednesday, for example, researchers from University College London published a <a href="https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/doi/10.1093/brain/awaa240/5868408" target="_blank">study</a> in the journal Brain that describes how some patients have suffered temporary brain dysfunction, strokes, nerve damage, and other neurological problems concurrent with COVID-19.</p><p>Some patients suffered brain inflammation as a result of a rare disease called acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, which can cause numbness, seizures, and confusion. One patient in the study even hallucinated monkeys and lions in her home.</p>
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images<p>A separate study published in the <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7198407/" target="_blank">Journal of Clinical Neuroscience</a> notes that some COVID-19 patients have also suffered neurological complications like impaired consciousness and acute cerebrovascular disease. The study notes that past viruses like MERS and SARS also seemed to cause neurological problems.</p><p>A troubling finding among this growing body of research is that some patients seem to suffer neurological damage even when respiratory symptoms aren't obvious. Additionally, scientists aren't sure whether damage from the disease will be permanent.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Given that the disease has only been around for a matter of months, we might not yet know what long-term damage COVID-19 can cause," Dr. Ross Paterson, joint first author of the University College London study, said in a <a href="https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/ucl-iid070620.php" target="_blank">press release</a>. "Doctors needs to be aware of possible neurological effects, as early diagnosis can improve patient outcomes."</p><p>If you've been diagnosed with COVID-19 and want to enroll in the study, visit <a href="https://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study" target="_blank">cambridgebrainsciences.com/studies/covid-brain-study</a>.</p>
Coronavirus layoffs are a glimpse into our automated future. We need to build better education opportunities now so Americans can find work in the economy of tomorrow.