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Guns, car crashes and drugs cut US male life expectancy by a year, research says

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Gun injuries, car crashes and drug poisoning account for more than one year of shortened life expectancy in American men compared to men in other high-income countries, according to Centers for Disease Control research .

An American man’s life expectancy is cut five months and 14 days shorter because of gun injuries compared with men in 12 other countries, said the research letter, published Tuesday in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jama).

Related: Gun violence is an epidemic that needs a public health response | Georges Benjamin

Researchers have known that life expectancy in the US is lower than it is in other high-income countries, but the new letter shows that these three types of injuries have a substantial impact on life expectancy in the US.

“I was surprised by the sheer magnitude of the impact of firearm deaths, that they’re only 1%-2% of deaths in the US but responsible for 20% of the gap in life expectancy between the US and other countries in men,” said Andrew Fenelon, the lead author of the letter.

The letter is also surprising because Congress has fought proposals to fund CDC research on gun violence since 1996 , despite calls from leading medical groups and public health experts. This is thus one of the few government-backed analyses of trends in gun injuries.

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Researchers with the CDC looked at data from the US national vital statistics system and the World Health Organization mortality database. The US injury deaths were compared to those in 12 other countries, including Germany, Japan and the UK.

In 2012, life expectancy for men and women in the US was 2.2 years less than for men and women in comparable countries. For men, these injury deaths accounted for 1.02 years of the life expectancy gap. For women, injuries accounted for .42 years of the gap.

Dr Mark Rosenberg helped establish the CDC’s national center for injury prevention and control before becoming president and CEO of the non-profit Task Force for Global Health. He said the letter showed why the CDC needs funding to research gun violence.

“If you think about the potential for saving lives there through a research effort, it’s extraordinarily high,” said Rosenberg. “But we haven’t done it – we’ve been paralyzed and the toll is huge.”

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He said that the way researchers interpreted the data, in population terms, makes the significance more striking. Life expectancy research tends to focus on what causes the elderly to die, but this analysis looks at the people who die at a young age, which brings the life expectancy rate down.

“If an injury death takes the life of someone who is 30, they may be losing the difference between thirty years and the expected life of 75 years, so you may be robbing them of 45 years of expected life,” Rosenberg said.

He is a proponent of research that examines how to reduce gun violence and how to protect the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

The letter shows that in 2012, more than 28,800 people died from gun injuries in the US, compared to 2,734 people, on average, in the comparison countries.

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Dr Frederick Rivara, a University of Washington chair who has worked in the field of injury control for more than thirty years, said that the role of firearms in US life expectancy is “a national disgrace”.

Rivara, who is on Jama’s advisory board, said that research on drug poisoning is increasing and there is significant research on motor vehicle crashes, but when it comes to firearms, there are still many unknowns.

“We have the second amendment in the United States – that’s a fact, it’s not going to go away and we have to respect that,” Rivara said. “On the other hand, we have to realize that guns are an enormous public health problem and we have to do what we can to address that as well.”

For men, gun deaths account for 5.4 months of the life expectancy gap. Car crashes account for 3.4 months and drug poisoning for 3.6 months.

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Related: Tearful Obama tightens gun control and tells inactive Congress: ‘We can’t wait’

Drug poisoning was the leading injury cause of death for women, however, which the author letters said could be tied to the prescription opioid epidemic.

But overall, injuries only account for .42 years of the age gap for women.

Fenelon said that the data does not just reflect “bad decisions made by Americans” but shows more broad factors are at play. Fenelon said: “It’s something broader because you see this difference in all these causes of death that aren’t necessarily linked.”

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2016

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