Canadians' life expectancy may be decreasing for the first time in decades, and it's being linked to the opioid crisis, the country's chief public health officer says.
"Life expectancy has been steadily increasing in Canada over many years and it is comparable to other high-income countries. Alarmingly, this is expected to change," said Dr. Theresa Tam in a report released Tuesday.
Tam cited the fact that life expectancy dropped by just over a month in British Columbia between 2014 and 2016 — largely due to opioid-related deaths.
Dr. Theresa Tam, chief public health officer for Canada, says the opioid crisis is expected to halt the country's steady increase in life expectancy. (Public Health Agency of Canada/Canadian Press)
Although there's no data on how life expectancy has been affected by opioid deaths at a national level, she said, B.C. and Alberta have "historically" been hardest hit by the crisis, and other parts of the country have recently seen increasing numbers of deaths.
"Canada is experiencing a growing epidemic of opioid-related deaths and harms," Tam said in the report. "Nearly 4,000 Canadians lost their lives to opioid overdoses in 2017 alone. This is equivalent to 11 Canadians dying each day."
She said the Public Health Agency of Canada is "analyzing the impact of the opioid overdose crisis on overall life expectancy" to get the national picture.
The increase in deaths in the last few years seems to be driven by illegal fentanyl, as well as overdoses resulting from using other drugs — including alcohol, benzodiazepenes, cocaine or methamphetamines — in combination with opioids, the report said.
The U.S. saw a drop in life expectancy due to drug overdoses for two years in a row, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
National data suggest the majority of opioid overdose deaths in Canada have been men and individuals between 20 and 59 years old, but Tam cautioned that this may not reflect the reality in some regions.
"Emerging evidence from several provinces indicates that individuals living in poverty, First Nations people and those who experience unstable housing are disproportionately affected by opioid overdose deaths," she said.
The report, meant to be a glimpse at the state of public health in Canada for the year, focuses on substance abuse among youth, including alcohol, cannabis and opioids.