Addiction Policy Forum Blog

7 min read

The role of alcohol, drugs, and despair in falling U.S. life expectancy

By Mark Gold, MD on January 16, 2020

After 2014, U.S. life expectancy fell for 3 straight years. This striking trend is not associated with other wealthy countries in the world and has given rise to a cottage industry of speculation on causes, with varied social, cultural, and political actors making use of the findings for preferred narratives. Some of this speculation arose after Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton coined the term “deaths of despair,” an easily misunderstood phrase. Case and Deaton used the term to refer to fatal drug overdoses, alcohol-related diseases, and suicides. “We think of all these deaths as suicides, by a very broad definition,” these economists have written,“and we attribute them to a broad deterioration in the lives of Americans without a college degree who entered adulthood after 1970.”

In late 2019, a National Institute on Aging-supported review offered a comprehensive examination of falling U.S. life expectancy. This study used data from the CDC, National Center for Health Statistics, and U.S. Mortality Database to trace life expectancy trends over a longer time frame and analyze mortality rates for particular age cohorts. It paints a complicated picture of poor U.S. mortality trends, which are not driven just by our polysubstance epidemics, and a decidedly unhappy one. The authors write, “According to one estimate, if the slow rate of increase in US life expectancy persists, it will take the United States more than a century to reach the average life expectancy that other high-income countries had achieved by 2016.”

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7 min read

Suicide might be a root cause of more opioid overdoses than we thought

By Mark Gold, MD on December 12, 2019

An “intentional” suicide attempt by fatal drug overdose refers to an individual seeking to overdose in order to end her life. This may sound straightforward enough. But the issue is much more nuanced, related to how we understand and respond to the opioid overdose epidemic. If all overdoses are considered “accidental” until proven otherwise, we may be missing higher rates of suicide and depression, and different approaches to prevention, identification, and treatment. 

How exactly can coroners and officials who write on death certificates determine whether someone “intentionally” wanted to die by overdose or “unintentionally” died by overdose, without any desire to die at all? The Directors of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently reviewed the literature linking overdose and suicide.1 Up to 30 percent of all accidental overdoses are actually suicides. They observed that, controlling for other conditions, suicidal thoughts are 40-50 percent higher among individuals misusing prescription opioids, and that, “people with a prescription opioid use disorder were also twice as likely to attempt suicide as individuals who did not misuse prescription opioids.”

In the U.S., suicide rates are increasing, overdoses are increasing, and life expectancy is decreasing—“deaths of despair”, they are often called. Between 1999 and 2009, opioid-related suicide rates doubled.2 Opioid-related overdose deaths among Americans and adolescents have also surged. And both opioid-related deaths and suicides have increased to epidemic levels in the United States. Doctors Nora D. Volkow and Maria A. Oquendo3 have written that declining motivation to live can range “from engagement in increasingly risky behaviors despite a lack of conscious suicidal intent to frank suicidal ideation and intent.” Most of what we used to think as leading causes of death have been decreasing. Deaths due to cardiovascular disease, cancer, stroke, and lung disease have all been steadily decreasing since 2000. But deaths from drugs, alcohol, and suicide have been increasing. Things have changed so much and so fast that more U.S. deaths now result from self-harm than even diabetes.4 Suicide is more than twice as common as homicide in the United States. Accidents, which may sometimes be covert suicide, make up the other leading causes of death. The major default manner-of-death assignment for injury cases contain misclassified suicides.5

Yet little attention has been paid to these deaths’ contributions to overdoses, suicide, and addiction.6 In a recent study, nationally recognized research leaders explore the connection between opioid-related overdoses and the spectrum of suicidal motivation.

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9 min read

The truth about MAT? Patients know the virtue

By Mark Gold, MD on October 3, 2019

47,600 people died from drug overdoses involving opioids in 2017. Between 2012 and 2018, the number of fentanyl-induced fatal overdoses rose dramatically, accounting for a majority of overdose deaths. While preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control shows a marginal decline in fatal overdoses in 2018, from 70,237 to 68,557, it also reveals that fentanyl is still the primary cause of fatal overdoses.1 Naloxone is a non-opioid wonder drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. It is short-acting, and by temporarily reversing the effects of opioids, it gives a person with an opioid use disorder (OUD) a second chance—an opportunity to receive treatment. As a result of campaigns by, among others, the Surgeon General2 and the CDC to improve naloxone access, retail pharmacies increased naloxone dispensing from 2012 to 2018. Despite the increase in dispensation by pharmacies, only one naloxone prescription was dispensed for every 69 high-dose opioid prescriptions in 2018.3 In the old days, I remember patients saying that they felt stigmatized at the pharmacy when they heard, "Mr. Jones, your Elavil is ready." Stigma kept many depressed patients from filling prescriptions. But in this case, is the challenge both stigma and the lack of pharmacist or health care provider education?4 It is tough to pinpoint a cause explaining this data. 

The CDC and Surgeon General encourage us to improve naloxone access at the local level, including through prescribing and pharmacy dispensing. Widespread distribution of naloxone is an essential component of the public health response to the opioid overdose epidemic. Unfortunately, the lowest rates of naloxone dispensing are in the areas with the highest opioid overdose rates. We are in the third phase of the opioid epidemic, with pain clinics’ overprescribing practices overtaken first by heroin and, more recently, by fentanyl. Individuals who overdose often overdose again, and many patients treated in addiction programs or health providers' offices through MAT often relapse.

For the treatment community, adverse outcomes and continued overdose deaths are, naturally, extremely upsetting. OUD treatment program employees frequently complain of burnout. High turnover in many programs is a major problem. Some are frustrated by recidivism rates, others because some patients are not offered MAT. Some patients cease their MAT course, and others drop out of treatment altogether. Yet experts have consistently agreed that while MAT, due to a lack of options, has not helped us combat cocaine or methamphetamine use disorders, it can be enormously helpful in managing OUD. A recent review, written by James Bell and John Strang, looks at the overall evidence on MAT and compares the relative benefits of different medications, helping to shed light on this critical public health issue. It is important to keep in mind, however, how contentiously and frequently some of our evidence is debated. We lack, for example, prospective, long-term, oncology-like, 5-year studies on the subject. MAT is debated—and so are standards measuring patient "outcomes." For a physician with an OUD, the relevant outcome standards may include a return to practice, 5-year sobriety, urine testing, and fitness for duty. In other cases, outcome standards may include coming to a treatment program, or following an MAT course, or simply not overdosing or dying. 

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3 min read

Data sharing among ED physicians could reduce drug overdose

By Mark Gold, MD on June 27, 2019

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4 min read

Is the next drug crisis a stimulant epidemic?

By Addiction Policy Forum on May 3, 2019

Experts say it’s happened before.

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4 min read

Fentanyl-adulterated Cocaine: Strategies to Address the New Normal

By Mark Gold, MD on April 25, 2019

At the center of America’s deadly opioid epidemic, non-pharmaceutical fentanyl appears to be finding its way into illegal stimulants that are sold on the street, such as cocaine. Adulteration with fentanyl is considered a key reason why cocaine’s death toll is escalating. Cocaine and fentanyl are proving to be a lethal combination - cocaine-related death rates have increased according to national survey data. This has important emergency response and harm reduction implications as well—naloxone might reverse such overdoses if administered in time. A recent study by Nolan et. al. assessed the role of opioids, particularly fentanyl, in the increase in cocaine-involved overdose deaths from 2015 to 2016 and found these substances to account for most of this increase.

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