When Emily Bryce’s mom drafted an obituary for her 26-year-old daughter, she didn’t want to sugarcoat Bryce’s death.

The first line read: “Emily Colleen Bryce died alone in an alley on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 at the age of 26 years.”

And while Degen Stevenson is frank about her daughter’s fentanyl overdose, she’s still in disbelief that she won’t watch Bryce grow old.

“She should have been old and grey and yelling at kids, ‘Get off my lawn,’ ” Stevenson said. “We don’t want to ever go to our own child’s funeral, and yet we’re in a situation where they are dying and they shouldn’t be.”

The untimely deaths of young people from overdoses in Saskatchewan is part of what’s driving down the province’s life expectancy to its lowest level in 22 years.

Emily Bryce died from a drug overdose in a Regina alley on Dec. 8, 2020. She was one of 324 people to die from drug poisoning in 2020, up from 180 the year before. (Submitted by Degen Stevenson)

According to Statistics Canada, the average life expectancy in Saskatchewan in 2021 was 78.48 years, a drop of two years from 80.52 in 2019.

The number of years a person could expect to live in the prairie province hasn’t been this low since 1999, but experts caution it is an average and doesn’t reveal much about individual lives. They attribute the decline to the number of deaths among young people from drug poisoning and suicide, as well as COVID-19-related deaths.

Dying young

Life expectancy decreases when there are more deaths or people die at a younger age.

Generally, the average person can expect to live a longer life than they could 100 years ago because of advances in medicine, nutrition, water quality and housing. And while increases have slowed or levelled off, the decline of life expectancy is unexpected and disturbing for many.

“It is unexpected at this point in development, at least in Canada, to have lots of younger people dying of anything, so that should be of concern. And whether it’s skewing the numbers or is a relatively small population, it’s still a big problem and I think we owe it to people to care about that,” said Kim McGrail, a professor in UBC’s school of population and public health.

Saskatchewan’s life expectancy declined in 2020 and 2021. In that time period, official records show 414 people died from suicide and 686 died from accidental overdoses.

For suicide deaths, more than half were under the age of 40. 

For overdoses, about 60 per cent were under the age of 50. 

Accidental drug overdoses among young adult men began to affect Canada’s average life expectancy back in 2017. At that time, Statistics Canada indicated the opioid crisis in B.C. was dragging down the national average, given that other provinces — including Saskatchewan — had seen an increase in life expectancy due to better treatment for cancer and circulatory disease.  

But Saskatchewan’s overdose crisis had only just begun at that point.

During the next few years, as seen in the chart below, overdose deaths spiked.

COVID-19 deaths

The pandemic has also stolen a lot of potential years of life.

McGrail, the UBC professor, studied excess mortality — the number of deaths above and beyond what would have been expected under normal circumstances — between March 2020 and October 2021.

She found Saskatchewan had an 11 per cent increase in deaths, or about 1,700 excess deaths, and just under half were directly attributed to COVID-19. Her research suggested many others were likely connected to pandemic issues, such as delays in medical treatment for diseases.

Anna Zajacova is a demographer and sociology professor at the University of Western Ontario.

She said any death at any age will decrease life expectancy, but deaths among older adults don’t affect the life expectancy average as much because the years of life lost aren’t as great.

Provincial data shows 955 people died from COVID-19 in the two-year window that life expectancy declined, and 54 per cent were under the age of 80, mostly in their 60s and 70s.

“Even when the deaths increased during COVID, it affected life expectancy much less than when there is an opioid crisis which kills young people, [because] you are all of a sudden cutting out all those years that they would have otherwise lived and it just really makes the life expectancy decrease steeply,” Zajacova said.

A patient receives chemotherapy treatment. Back in 2017, improvements in cancer care meant an increase in life expectancy for both men and women in Canada. (Shutterstock)Gross averages

McGrail and Zajacova share a similar view about the shortcomings of the life expectancy statistic.

McGrail worries that people will assume the impact of the virus is over, and may fail to recognize issues that trace back to the pandemic, such as chronic illnesses, surgical delays or mental distress.

“We run the risk of oversimplifying our policy response,” she said.

Zajacova cautions that life expectancy speaks more to the health of the community than to one person.

“It does not tell you a whole lot about your own life expectancy because these are just gross averages at a population level that tell you about the conditions in the society. At the individual level, there is a tremendous amount of variation,” she said.

How long an individual will actually live is complicated by a long list of variables, such as their sex, ethnicity, education, income and lifestyle choices related to smoking, diet, exercise, vaccinations and substance use.

And even then, it’s not an exact science.

“Everybody will know the uncle who smoked two packs a day and lived to a hardy 95, and the aunt who exercised and ate healthy and succumbed to a condition at a very young age,” Zajacova said.

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