The opioid epidemic has received a lot of media and political attention recently, much more than food-related diseases such as diabetes. Axios recently reported that “U.S. life expectancy was steadily rising since 1970 but stopped in 2014, mostly because of drug-related deaths.” They based this on a new CDC letter in JAMA. Similarly, the Washington Post alleged last year that the “Drug crisis is pushing up death rates for almost all groups of Americans.”
The media’s focus on opioid deaths is highly misleading. Opioids remain a relatively minor cause of death in America. By far and away, the main culprit is food-related chronic disease: a category that includes diabetes, strokes, heart attacks and cancer. These are all related to junk food.
Drug overdoses killed 52,400 Americans in 2015. Heart disease alone killed 633,842, over 12 times the amount killed by drugs. Add to that diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s, and you get 1,419,868 dead Americans. That’s 27 times the amount killed by drug overdoses. And keep in mind that many of those overdoses did not result from opioids.
You may object that these chronic diseases are the inevitable result of old age, but they’re increasingly appearing in kids and teens. You may also object that drug-related deaths are growing, whereas food-related deaths are holding steady or even declining. That is true for some food-related causes of death, to be sure. It’s not, however, true for at least two of them: Alzheimer’s disease and strokes.
First, let’s look at mortality from drug overdoses. This is a broad category that includes opioid and heroin overdoses as well as deaths from other drugs. Over the most recent three-year period for which we have full data, the age-adjusted death rate for drug overdoses increased by roughly 4.3 per 100,000 Americans:
Drug Overdose Death Rate, Past 12 Months, Age-Adjusted
Q3 2014: 14.3
Q3 2015: 16.1
Q3 2016: 18.6
Now let’s look at what’s happened to stroke mortality during the same time frame:
Stroke Death Rate, Past 12 Months, Age-Adjusted
Q3 2014: 35.9
Q3 2015: 37.8
Q3 2016: 37.1
Meanwhile, the age-adjusted death rate for Alzheimer’s increased remarkably:
Alzheimer’s Death Rate, Past 12 Months, Age-Adjusted
Q3 2014: 24.2
Q3 2015: 29.3
Q3 2016: 29.8
Alzheimer’s disease and strokes combined caused an additional 6.8 deaths per 100,000 over this three-year period, significantly more than the additional 4.3 per 100,000 caused by drug overdoses. And both Alzheimer’s disease and strokes are closely related to junk food.
Why are ~55,000 drug overdose deaths causing a nationwide state of alarm, while we’ve all come to accept the 1.9 million Americans dying yearly from preventable chronic diseases?
Well, we seem to be taking our cues from our leadership. The CDC recently called the increase in the stroke death rate “nonsignificant.” Congress has held hearings on the opioid crisis but granted chronic disease prevention considerably less attention. Donald Trump announced he will declare opioids a state of emergency. He has not expressed any such concern about soda and junk food. The health care debate in Washington has largely ignored the true causes of chronic disease. And the CDC’s own chronic disease efforts are laughably out-of-date.
Now, is any of this dramatic under-reaction to chronic disease possibly related to the fact that the food and beverage industry has long partnered with the U.S. government’s public health efforts? You have to ask.