US Drug Overdose Deaths Reach New Record High

In its latest data brief, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provide harrowing new statistics about the ongoing addiction epidemic in the United States.

Overdose deaths passed another grim threshold in 2015: for the first time drug overdose deaths in the United States surpassed the 50,000 mark. While there were 38,329 overdose-related deaths in 2010 in the US, by 2015, that figure had increased to 52,404, according to the CDC data. That represents a 36.7 percent increase in only five years. And it is three times the number of overdose deaths that occurred in the year 2000.

Between 2000 and 2015, the US population grew by approximately 38 million people but even considering the growing population, the overdose death rate increased dramatically. While there were 6.2 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 individuals in the year 2,000, by 2015 that number had increased to a shocking 16.3 per 100,000.

While the population increased 13.7 percent in 15 years, the drug overdose death rate increased 163 percent over the same period. And the situation is not improving, despite all the efforts in the last few years to contain this epidemic, the death rate seems to be accelerating. The increase for 2014-15 is almost 11 percent in a single year.  

And drug overdose fatalities are no longer primarily affecting younger adults. As the CDC reports, drug overdose death rates increased for all age groups, with the greatest percentage increase among adults aged 55–64 (from 4.2 per 100,000 in 1999 to 21.8 in 2015). Adults aged 45–54 had the highest rate in 2015.

This shift toward older drug users has begun to impact life expectancy in the United States which decreased in 2015 for the first time in over 20 years. The Atlantic reported in December that “so-called ‘despair deaths’—alcoholism, drugs, and suicide—are a big part of the problem, but so is obesity, poverty, and social isolation.”

The biggest killer is increasingly heroin, often in combination with synthetic opioids like fentanyl. In 2015, the percentage of drug overdose deaths involving heroin (25 percent) was triple the percentage in 2010 (8 percent). Significant increases also were seen in drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone, from 8 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2015.

Clearly, the need for effective prevention and treatment is greater than ever. “It is time to change how we as a society address alcohol and drug misuse and substance use disorders,” wrote the Surgeon General in his comprehensive report on the addiction crisis in 2016. Dr. Murthy called for “broad implementation of effective prevention and treatment interventions and recovery supports in a wide range of settings.”

Despite the escalating addiction epidemic, this isn’t happening yet. “Although 20.8 million people (7.8 percent of the population) met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder in 2015, only 2.2 million individuals (10.4 percent) received any type of treatment,” according to the Surgeon General’s report.

Dr. Larissa Mooney, director of the University of California Los Angeles Addiction Medicine Clinic, told CNN the new CDC data highlighted the need for opioid addiction treatment. "We need to improve access to treatment and remove barriers," she said.

Decision Point has been helping men and women overcome the challenges of addiction to drugs and alcohol since 2002. The Decision Point team is deeply experienced in the traditional approaches to addiction treatment, but also very open to evolving ideas and understandings of this disease and its treatment.

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