Study Finds Alarming Death Rate for Opioid Addicts

Opioid addiction, known formally in the U.S. as opioid use disorder, is known for its ability to produce seriously negative outcomes for affected individuals. Addiction specialists can help significantly reduce the impact of these outcomes by providing appropriate treatment options. However, the potential for problems does not end when treatment begins. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Addiction, an international research team looked at the long-term mortality rates of individuals who seek help for an opioid addiction. The researchers concluded that the vast majority of these individuals ultimately die from preventable causes.

Opioid Addiction and Treatment

Opioids can trigger problems because, when taken repeatedly over time, they alter the brain’s long-term chemical environment. In some cases, this alteration results in opioid dependence, a condition that features a reliance on opioids, but does not produce dysfunctional behavior or damage the life opportunities of the user. (Prescription opioid users who properly follow their doctors’ instructions are the group of people most likely to develop this functional dependence.) In other cases, it results in addiction, a condition marked by a reliance on opioids in combination with drug cravings, an inability to control drug intake and a range of negative behaviors that seriously endanger the user’s health and limit his or her life opportunities. Treatment programs for opioid addiction commonly employ both medications and some form of counseling or therapy. Rather than seeking an outright cure for an addiction to opioids, modern-day programs often seek to successfully manage the condition over time in the same way that doctors manage other chronic conditions. Medication options in the treatment process include the relatively weak substitute opioids methadone and buprenorphine and anti-opioid substances called naltrexone and naloxone. Therapy and counseling options include cognitive behavioral therapy and other forms of group or individual psychotherapy, as well as participation in mutual support groups.

Understanding Preventable Death

According to the results of a Harvard School of Public Health study published in 2009 in the journal PLOS Medicine, the leading contributors to preventable death in the U.S. are tobacco smoking, high blood pressure, excessive body weight, a lack of physical activity, uncontrolled high blood sugar, high levels of LDL cholesterol, high sodium intake, a diet poor in omega-3 fatty acids, alcohol intake, a diet low in fruits and vegetables, and a diet simultaneously low in polyunsaturated fat and high in saturated fat. People who modify these known risk factors substantially reduce their chances of dying prematurely from causes such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

Figures for Opioid Addicts

In the study published in Addiction, researchers from Australia, the U.S. and Great Britain used a long-term project involving 43,789 Australian adults to determine the most likely causes of death among people who receive some form of treatment for opioid addiction. All of these individuals received opioid substitution therapy, which involves the use of methadone or buprenorphine to manage addictions to stronger opioid drugs or medications. The death rate and cause of death for the study participants were calculated for a 20-year timeframe between 1985 and 2005. The researchers drew several conclusions after reviewing the gathered data. First, they found that certain causes of death — including suicides, opioid overdoses, car accidents and intentional injury — were much more common for younger recovering opioid addicts. Conversely, certain other causes of death — including cancer, liver disease and cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease — were much more common among older recovering addicts. Critically, the researchers found that fully 89 percent of all the deaths among men treated for opioid addiction were preventable. Women treated for opioid addiction died from preventable causes at a slightly less severe rate of 86 percent.

Significance and Considerations

In the general U.S. population, most deaths are linked to age-related factors, even if the people who die are also affected by preventable health problems. The 86.5 percent death rate from preventable causes among people treated for opioid addiction represents a stark reversal of this dominant trend. Although the authors of the study published in Addiction focused on an Australian population for their work, the similarities between America and Australia suggest that a similar situation may exist for people in the U.S. treated for opioid addiction. The authors point toward a need for large-scale efforts to reduce the mortality rates for recovering addicts.

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