Despite an outpouring of resources, like greater access to the overdose antidote naloxone, opioids continue to kill Americans at a record pace.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

It’s no secret that opioids kill more Americans annually than ever before. But a new study published Friday in JAMA Network Open highlights just how devastating the crisis has been to certain age groups. In 2016, it found, opioid overdoses were responsible for a fifth of all deaths among people in their mid-20s to 30s—a fivefold increase from 15 years ago.

The researchers looked at mortality data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2001 to 2016. The overall percentage of deaths caused by opioids had jumped 296 percent over that time period, they found, accounting for 335,123 deaths in total. By 2016, one in every 65 deaths could be traced to opioids. They also estimated nearly 1.7 million years of life were lost prematurely to opioids that year, a toll higher than that caused by diseases like HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, and pneumonia.

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The toll isn’t evenly distributed among Americans, though. More than two-thirds of deaths were among men. And though much has been made of the growing number of deaths from drug overdoses among white, middle-aged Americans in recent years—so-called deaths of despair—the largest relative increase in mortality the researchers saw was in people from the ages of 25 to 34. Opioids accounted for about 4 percent of deaths in this age group in 2001, but a whopping 20 percent in 2016.

“Despite the amount of attention that has been placed on this public health issue, we are increasingly seeing the devastating impact that early loss of life from opioids is having across the United States,” said lead author Tara Gomes, a scientist in the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute of St. Michael’s Hospital Hospital in Toronto, Ontario, in a statement. “In the absence of a multidisciplinary approach to this issue that combines access to treatment, harm reduction, and education, this crisis will impact the U.S. for generations.”

Already, public health officials believe the worsening crisis—fueled by the greater availability of more potent street opioids like fentanyl—has played a large role in lowering the average life expectancy at birth in the US over the past three years.

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The crisis has seemingly had less of an impact in Europe, but the same can’t be said for Canada. In fact, Gomes and her team were building off earlier research of theirs that found a similar pattern of deaths in that country.

“These numbers show us the dramatic impact of opioid-related harms across all demographics in the US,” she said in a statement. “We know this is not an isolated public health issue—it is one that spans across North America.”

The CDC estimates that over 42,000 Americans were killed by opioid overdose in 2016. And in Canada, an estimated 4,000 people died due to opioids in 2017. Both are record highs.

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[JAMA Network Open]