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Overdose deaths are a big reason white American lifespans are in decline

New federal data shows that the average lifespan of white Americans fell ever so slightly in 2014, a fact that is being attributed to increased death rates among young and middle-aged white people.

Deaths in that age group have spiked largely because of liver disease, suicide and drug overdoses, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of those overdoses are attributed to people abusing opioids such as painkillers and heroin.

The decline — from an average of 78.9 years per person in 2013 to 78.8 years per person in 2014 — is the next step in a recent trend in which life expectancy increases for Americans have ground to a halt.

Overdose deaths, though not the only factor in the decline, have made headlines more than any other cause in recent months, as the CDC looks to combat overprescription of pain medication that officials believe has led to dependency on opioids and many eventual overdoses. 

Around 500,000 Americans died from overdosing on opioids over the last 15 years, according to CDC Director Tom Frieden, and Americans aged 25-44 account for more than 50% of those deaths. In addition, around 2.5 million more Americans are currently addicted to those same drugs. 

In March, the CDC for the first time released guidelines for painkiller prescription, cautioning doctors that, for many patients, the risks of painkillers outweigh any possible benefits.

“We know of no other medication routinely used for a nonfatal condition that kills patients so frequently,” Frieden and Debra Houry, director of the agency's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine. "We hope to see fewer deaths from opiates. That's the bottom line."

Doctors have traditionally prescribed patients with weeks' and months' worth of pain medication. 

New guidelines seek to limit prescription to a few days unless absolutely necessary, to avoid patient dependency.

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