Cutting it Short: The Average Life Expectancy of Fatal Overdose Victims

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Philip Seymour Hoffman, Whitney Houston, Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson – by now, you’ve probably realized what these celebrities all have in common.

Viewed through the lens of lifestyle news, drug overdose might seem like the type of tragic death reserved only for the rich and famous. But sadly, the epidemic is surging among the ranks of everyday people, and the lives of drug users are remarkably short.

While fatal overdoses can occur at any age, individuals in the United States who fatally overdose on drugs overall live only about half as long as the general population on average. Overdose is unpredictable and unexpected: some of these people may be on the cusp of a transformative phase of their life before it’s tragically cut short, and others are simply going about their everyday life, but no matter their circumstances, overdose deaths continue each day like a drumbeat. It’s as if they die in mid-sentence.

For a nationwide look at the average ages for overdose deaths, we examined the CDC’s WONDER database. Below are some startling statistics we uncovered. No matter the age, drug abuse and overdoses are serious issues that affect the lives of everyone involved. If you or someone you know – regardless of age – is battling addiction, there is help available.

On Average, Those Who Succumb to Fatal Drug Overdoses Lose Nearly Half of Their Natural Life Expectancies

The demographics behind the growing drug overdoses are telling. White women, especially in rural areas, have begun dying at higher rates since the turn of this century. Although white women still outlive white men and African-Americans, that gap is shrinking. Some of that can be accounted for by opioid abuse. According to the research we’ve compiled from CDC Wonder, women overall are overdosing more commonly than men on methadone, ethanol, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, and other opioids.

As a result of historical racial injustice, black Americans die on average four years younger than white Americans. However, the mortality gap has shrunk in the past 15 years. The mortality rate among white Americans has increased recently, while it has declined among black Americans. The trend is attributed to the rise of “despair” deaths among middle-aged white Americans, including suicide and drug and alcohol overdoses, notes a study released last year by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Doctors are likelier to prescribe painkillers to white patients than black patients, which might account for the racial disparity in trends of drug overdoses.

Drug Overdose Fatality Victims: Average Age of Death for U.S. States

Although the U.S. only makes up about 4 percent of the world’s population, it uses 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply. Now, the mortality rate from drug overdoses is rising faster than other causes of death in America.

Mortality disproportionately affects rural areas as compared to urban areas. The Southwest and Appalachia have experienced alarming numbers of drug overdoses in the past decade. In Arkansas, the average age of fatal overdose is 38 years old; in Indiana, the average age is 39, and in North Dakota, an alarming 29.5.

Drug Overdose Fatalities Have Been on the Rise in the U.S. for Over 15 Years

More Americans are dying overall every year since 2001, and while overall deaths increase, the age of those who overdose on drugs has risen as well. As Americans age, they require more medical procedures and experience more pains that would lead to doctors prescribing painkillers for various procedures and conditions. As a result, older patients are at higher risk for abusing prescription or over-the-counter medications. In a statement by the Administration on Aging and SAMHSA: “Approximately 25 percent of older adults use prescription psychoactive medications that have a potential to be misused and abused.”

The fact that the average age of death by overdose is rising might indicate that the fatalities are increasingly caused by drugs prescribed to older Americans. In 1999, the average age of overdose was 39.96 years old. Compared with the 2014 average – 42.64 years old – that’s an age increase of 6.71 percent.

The Substances that Kill: Average Age of Overdose Fatality by Age and Gender

The death rate from drug overdoses is climbing at a much faster pace than the AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s. In fact, the level of overdose mortality rates among 35- to 44-year-old white adults tripled from 1999 to 2014.

Heroin and methadone – have younger average ages of overdose. On the other hand, alcohol, opioids, and barbiturates (used to treat insomnia and anxiety) have older average ages of death. These older ages make sense given that older Americans are more commonly seeing doctors and taking prescribed medicine.

North Dakota Leads the Nation in Youngest Average Age of Overdose Fatality

The average age of death by drug overdose varies widely by state. North Dakota has the youngest average age of overdose at 29.5, but despite its young average, the state recently ranked the lowest in the United States for its rate of drug overdoses per resident. However, showing that no state is safe from the risk of the drug overdose epidemic, North Dakota’s rate of overdose has risen dramatically in recent years. From 2013 to 2014, its drug overdose fatalities showed a 125 percent increase.

The situation has become so dire in America, President Barack Obama has asked Congress to address the rampant abuse of prescription opioids and heroin with $1.1 billion in funding – slightly more than the amount he requested to tackle cancer. Heroin and drug abuse also gained national recognition during the 2016 presidential campaign. New England has been described as the “cradle” of America’s current heroin epidemic, and with the nation’s first primary in New Hampshire, candidates used the occasion to put a different spin on the drug war than in decades past.

“The way [substance abuse] is being addressed now, compared to four years ago, is light years apart,” Stephanie Bergeron, director of development of the treatment facility Serenity Place, told VICE. Now, candidates across both parties are framing the problem as a medical crisis of addiction instead of a crime problem, promoting increased funding for drug treatment and encouraging an end to widespread incarceration for drug law violations.

Conclusion

The nation has woken up to the reality that deaths from drug overdose are rising not only in the pages of celebrity tabloids but also in communities across the United States – at startlingly young ages. When loved ones or we experiment with drugs, we’re all at risk of becoming just another statistic. We should all do our part to heal the nation.

To get help for yourself or a loved one who may be at risk of overdose, please call us today at 1-888-439-3435. Speak confidentially with our dedicated treatment support staff about a number of available substance abuse recovery options.

Methodology

We pulled data from the CDC’s WONDER database on multiple causes of death for the years 1999–2014, using the mortality rates and populations for the following drugs: barbiturates, benzodiazepines, heroin, other semisynthetic opioids, methadone, cocaine, psychostimulants with abuse potential, and alcohol for each state and age group in each year.

We were given an anonymized age range, then estimated the average age of passing by finding the weighted average, which was found by looking at the number of fatalities that occurred in each age range and U.S. state.

We then pulled the most current life expectancy data from the CDC and cross-referenced it with those above to compare fatal drug overdoses with natural life expectancy to show the percentage of potential life lost.

Sources

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