TUESDAY, March 13, 2018 -- Though fewer Americans are dying from alcohol abuse, suicide and murder, opioid overdose deaths have risen dramatically in recent decades, a new report finds.
And some regions of the United States are bearing the brunt of these "deaths of despair," the researchers discovered.
"Unless more effective policies are developed and programs implemented, drug use disorders will continue to have devastating and tragic consequences," said study author Laura Dwyer-Lindgren. She's an assistant professor of global health at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The national toll of drug overdose deaths is indisputable in the report: They increased 238 percent between 1980 and 2000, and 112 percent between 2000 and 2014. America is in the midst of an opioid epidemic that has claimed thousands of lives.
These deaths increased in every U.S. county, but some counties in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and eastern Oklahoma saw increases exceeding 5,000 percent, Dwyer-Lindgren said.
And while this study stops at 2014, newer numbers suggest that these trends continue, one public health expert said.
"We have released data that cover 2015 and 2016, and see that these trends have intensified," said John Auerbach, president and chief executive officer of the Trust for America's Health.
"The most recent data from 2017 suggests that these trends are continuing to increase. These problems are getting worse, not better," he added.
"Deaths from alcohol, drugs, suicide and violence are what might be called 'despair-related' deaths," Auerbach said.
People who feel hopeless are the most likely to die from one of these, he said. "Experiences in their lives have led them to numb the pain that they are feeling," Auerbach explained.
How to stem the tide? Doctors should screen their patients for signs of addiction or suicidal thoughts and refer them for treatment, Auerbach said.
"Another thing that needs to be done is to work with children and adolescents before they become addicted or suicidal, to address some of these underlying issues," Auerbach suggested.
To prevent future deaths, the nation is going to have to figure out how to deal with these underlying causes, he said.
And while deaths from alcohol abuse, suicide and murder rates dropped nationally, there were still pockets of increases in some parts of the country, the study found.
For example, "while death due to alcohol-use disorders, suicide and homicide declined nationally between 1980 and 2014, there were individual counties where the mortality rates due to these causes actually increased," Dwyer-Lindgren said.
In the study, counties in the western United States accounted for more alcohol-related deaths than other regions, the researchers found.
"Deaths rates were especially high in Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Alaska," Dwyer-Lindgren said.
And, she added, "Although the national death rate due to suicide decreased between 1980 and 2014, there was an increase in the death rate due to suicide in some counties."
Suicides accounted for nearly 1.3 million deaths, with especially high rates in counties in Alaska, Nevada, South Dakota, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Wyoming and one county in Maryland, the researchers found.
In a bit of good news, the death rate from homicide decreased by about 35 percent between 1980 and 2000, and by nearly 16 percent between 2000 and 2014. Counties with the largest decreases were in Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Texas, California and New York, the researchers found.
The report was published March 13 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
For more information on the toll of American despair, visit the Trust for America's Health.
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