For 1st time in 4 years, US life expectancy rises — a little

NEW YORK (AP) — Life expectancy in the United States is up for the first time in four years.

The increase is small — just a month — but marks at least a temporary halt to a downward trend. The rise is due to lower death rates for cancer and drug overdoses.

"Let’s just hope it continues,” said Robert Anderson, who oversees the report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest calculation is for 2018 and factors in current death trends and other issues. On average, an infant born that year is expected to live about 78 years and 8 months, the CDC said.

For males, it's about 76 years and 2 months; for females 81 years and 1 month.

For decades, U.S. life expectancy was on the upswing, rising a few months nearly every year. But from 2014 to 2017, it fell slightly or held steady. That was blamed largely on surges in overdose deaths and suicides.

Suicides continued to increase in 2018, as did deaths from the flu and pneumonia during what turned out to be an unusually bad flu year. But declines in some other causes of death — most notably cancer and drug overdoses — were enough to overcome all that, according to the report.

Cancer is the nation’s No. 2 killer, blamed for about 600,000 deaths a year, so even slight changes in the cancer death rate can have a big impact. The rate fell more than 2%, matching the drop in 2017.

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In this Aug. 23, 2018 photo, 117-year-old Julia Flores Colque speaks during an interview at her home in Sacaba, Bolivia. The previously world's oldest person, a 117-year-old Japanese woman, died earlier this year. Her passing apparently left Flores Colque as the world's oldest living person. (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
The world's oldest person Violet Brown clasps her hands at her home in Duanvale, Jamaica, Sunday, April 16, 2017. The 117-year-old woman living in the hills of western Jamaica is believed to have become the world's oldest person, according to groups that monitor human longevity. (AP Photo/Raymond Simpson)
The world's oldest person Violet Brown poses for a photo at her home in Duanvale, Jamaica, Sunday, April 16, 2017. The 117-year-old woman living in the hills of western Jamaica is believed to have become the world's oldest person, according to groups that monitor human longevity. (AP Photo/Raymond Simpson)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 file photo, Emma Morano sits in her home on the day of her 117th birthday in Verbania, Italy. An Italian doctor says Emma Morano, at 117 the world's oldest person, has died in her home in northern Italy. Dr. Carlo Bava told The Associated Press by telephone that Morano's caretaker called him to say the woman had passed away Saturday, April 15, 2017 afternoon while sitting in an armchair in her home in Verbania, a town on Lake Maggiore. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 file photo, Emma Morano, 117 years old, blows candles on the day of her birthday in Verbania, Italy. An Italian doctor says Saturday, April 15, 2017 Emma Morano, at 117 the world's oldest person, has died in her home in northern Italy. Dr. Carlo Bava told The Associated Press by telephone that Morano's caretaker called him to say the woman had passed away Saturday afternoon while sitting in an armchair in her home in Verbania, a town on Lake Maggiore. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)
FILE - In this Thursday, July 3, 2014, file photo, Gertrude Weaver poses at Silver Oaks Health and Rehabilitation Center in Camden, Ark., a day before her 116th birthday. With the death of a 117-year-old woman in Japan, Weaver became the world's oldest person, according to the Los Angeles-based Gerontology Research Group, which tracks supercentenarians. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2011 file photo, Besse Cooper, sits in her room at a nursing home, in Monroe, Ga. Cooper, the woman who was listed as the world's oldest person has died Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 in a Georgia nursing home at age 116, according to her son Sidney Cooper. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)
Edna Parker, 114, responds to a question asked by reporters in Shelbyville, Ind., Thursday, Aug. 16, 2007. The world's oldest person _ 114-year-old Edna Parker _ celebrated her feat of longevity Thursday by dining on a slice of her favorite type of cake after telling reporters that she can't believe she's lived to be so old. Parker, who was born in 1893, became the world's oldest person Monday when a Japanese woman four months older than her died. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
114 year old Walter Breuning stands under a portrait of himself in the lobby of his senior residence in Great Falls, Mont, on Oct. 6, 2010. Officials at a Montana retirement home say the world's oldest man has died. Walter Breuning was 114, making him the oldest man and the second-oldest person in the world. Breuning was born on Sept. 21, 1896, in Melrose, Minn., and moved to Montana in 1918. Breuning lived at the Rainbow Senior Living retirement home in Great Falls. Retirement home spokeswoman Stacia Kirby confirmed that Breuning died Thursday, April 14, 2011 of natural causes in a Great Falls hospital. (AP Photo/Mike Albans)
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“I’m a little surprised that rapid pace is continuing,” said Rebecca Siegel, a researcher for the American Cancer Society.

Most of the improvement is in lung cancer because of fewer smokers and better treatments, she said.

Also striking was the drop in drug overdose deaths that had skyrocketed through 2017. The death rate fell 4% in 2018 and the number of deaths dropped to about 67,400.

Deaths from heroin and prescription painkillers went down, however, deaths from other drugs — fentanyl, cocaine and meth — continued to go up. And preliminary data for the first half of 2019 suggest the overall decline in overdose deaths is already slowing down.

It's still a crisis, said Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University researcher. “But the fact that we have seen the first year where there’s not an additional increase is encouraging.”

The national decline was driven by dips in 14 states, the CDC's Anderson said. Those include states where overdose deaths have been most common, like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

In Ohio's Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, overdose deaths fell in 2018 and preliminary data indicates another drop last year. County health commissioner Tim Ingram credited efforts to try to expand access to treatment, and to widely distribute the overdose reversal drug Narcan.

“We almost saturated our community with Narcan,” he said.

Nationally, for all causes of death, more than 2.8 million Americans died in 2018. That’s about 26,000 more than the year before, the CDC report found. The number went up even as the death rate went down, because the population is growing and a large group are retirement age baby boomers.

Other findings:

— The 10 leading causes of death remained the same, with heart disease at No. 1. The death rate for heart disease declined slightly, by less than 1%.

— Death rates also dropped for stroke, Alzheimer's disease, chronic lower respiratory diseases and unintentional injuries, which includes drug overdoses.

— Americans who were 65 in 2018 are expected to live another 19 years and six months, on average.

— The infant mortality rate fell more than 2%, to 1 in 177 births.

— The suicide death rate hit its highest level since 1941 — about 14 per 100,000. The rate peaked during the Depression in 1932 then mostly declined until 2000. It's been rising most years since then.

The U.S. has the highest suicide rate of 11 wealthy nations studied, according to a separate report released Thursday by the private Commonwealth Fund. That report also found U.S. life expectancy is two years lower that the average for the 10 other wealthy nations.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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