As the drug epidemic began to unfold in the United States, deaths classified as drug-related for 15- to 64-year-olds hit 9% in 2016, up from about 4% seven years prior. But new research published in PLOS ONE from the University of Pennsylvania and Georgetown University suggests that drug-associated mortality in this country is actually more than double that.
“It’s obvious that the drug epidemic is a major American disaster,” says Penn demographer Samuel Preston, who conducted this work with Georgetown demographer Dana Glei. “The basic records being kept are annual reports on the number of deaths from drug overdose. But that’s only part of the picture.”
Among this group of Americans in 2016, 63,000 deaths were attributed to drug-related causes—mostly poisonings—but Glei and Preston estimate that the overall number of drug-associated deaths is far higher: around 142,000. They also found that, on average, drug use decreased life expectancy after age 15 by 1.4 years for men and by 0.7 years for women—figures that more than doubled for the hardest-hit state, West Virginia.
“The drug epidemic is probably killing a lot more Americans than we think,” says Glei, a senior research investigator in Georgetown’s Center for Population and Health. “That’s the main point we’re trying to make.”
To draw these conclusions, the researchers turned to a dataset from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They built models to assess the mortality rates for males and females in all 50 states from 15 age groups and for 18 calendar years. The dataset represented more than 44 million deaths, 667,196 of which were coded as related to drugs. Their models eventually showed that drug-coded deaths, which include drug overdoses and mental and behavioral disorders related to drugs, represent only about half of all drug-associated deaths.