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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6 min read

How MDMA might help in therapy and treating PTSD

By Mark Gold, MD on January 9, 2020

In May, in a reflection on her religious upbringing, societal strictures, and individual spiritual development, The New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote that she first tried ecstasy, or MDMA, in college:

“We swallowed pills that had been crushed into Kleenex, and then we slipped into a sweaty black box of a music venue down the street, and I felt weightless, like I’d come back around to a truth that I had first been taught in church: that anything could happen, and a sort of grace that was both within you and outside you would pull you through."

Some individuals who have used MDMA in non-scientific settings claim that it provides them with energy and reduces social inhibitions through mind-expanding spiritual uplift. It is the substance of choice at night parties, one of the major synthesized club drugs, and linked to accidents, dehydration, overheating, and dangerous behaviors.1 Recreational use is certainly not without its risks. 

But what’s the difference between the substance’s purported therapeutic function and its dangerous side? MDMA is ecstasy’s main ingredient, but individuals who use the substance recreationally are sometimes misinformed about levels of adulteration. It can also be harmful in street versions, which may mix or combine other substances with MDMA. MDMA is not perfectly unique in its effects on sociability and human connection — adages about “moderation” in use abound in part because some substances have both relaxing and stimulating properties that can make social engagements more convivial. Yet the substance is often misused, and can lead to substance use disorder (SUD). In a recent Stanford study, researchers note, “It is unknown, however, whether the mechanisms underlying [MDMA’s] prosocial therapeutic effects and abuse potential are distinct.”

Through controlled doses and experimental administration, MDMA is currently being studied for therapeutic benefits. Early reports by some researchers reviewing MDMA as one option for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been most promising so far. Carefully observed and administered scientific settings dramatically reduce the likelihood of withdrawal, overdose, and diversion.2 This Stanford study tested mice to try to distinguish between MDMA’s beneficial and harmful effects.

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7 min read

What we have learned from stress and addiction research

By Mark Gold, MD on January 2, 2020

Experts and professionals have become increasingly aware of the health effects of trauma and stress. Trauma, sexual, physical, or emotional, can change the brain and increase risks for many psychiatric conditions and diseases. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), for example, which refer to traumatic events in the lives of people under the age of 18, can negatively affect the brain and lead to addiction, academic problems, heart disease, and depression. A recent study found that ACEs and lifetime adversity exposure were significantly associated with increased risk of substance-related hospitalization, overdose, witnessing overdose, and having a friend and family member who overdosed.1 Similar data have been reported recently for suicide.2 Discussing trauma and stress can be difficult and evoke feelings of depression or shame: they are heavily stigmatized, compounding many of these potential problems and sapping individual reserves of resilience. Science shows us that stress and adversity aren’t just generally irritating aspects of everyone’s lives. In severe forms, they’re also major threats to our health and ability to think clearly and logically.3 

Not all traumatic experiences cause Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or substance use disorder (SUD). Recent research findings from the Yale group suggest that trauma in the absence of a PTSD diagnosis does not lead to a stronger craving for alcohol. 4 Yet researchers know that the risk of developing mental illness rises because of psychosocial adversity. 5 “These adverse factors,” write the authors of one recent study, “include developmental psychological trauma and adult life events (situations or occurrences that bring about a negative change in personal circumstances and involve threat).” These factors can also increase the risk of developing SUD. Researchers are investigating how various therapies, including mindfulness, modify triggers and traumatic memories. 6 But experts have not clearly identified the ways in which stress and trauma dispose people to later problems. In this recent study, researchers wondered whether stress affects dopamine levels, impairing them over a longer term. They exposed participants to stress and gauged their reactions through state-of-the art PET scans.
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7 min read

Physician substance use disorders: contingency management encourages recovery?

By Mark Gold, MD on December 26, 2019

“Imagine if,” write the authors of a review in The New England Journal of Medicine, “the medical profession barred anyone being treated with pharmacotherapy for depression from returning to practice, insisting that only physicians who had achieved remission with cognitive behavioral therapy were fit to practice.” Why might readers imagine this? Physicians and nurses with opioid use disorder (OUD) are encouraged or required to participate in physician health programs, or PHPs, state-based treatment programs studied by experts like McLellan, Dupont, and Merlo, among others.1 These programs are often focused on abstinence and have defined 5-year outcomes, including fitness for duty and return to work. This New England Journal of Medicine article makes a case for lifting bans on medication-assisted treatment (MAT) in some PHPs and orienting the programs around structural health challenges faced by medical professionals. 

It is certainly true that PHPs have a history of successful recovery, return-to-work rates, and premorbid function outcomes for physicians who are monitored and active in such programs. But all physicians are not the same. Substance Use Disorders (SUDs) are not the same, either, and physician specialties have different risks.2 Before the public heard of fentanyl, for example, it was a dangerous substance for anesthesiologists.3 And health care professionals and business executives can become political footballs in the MAT vs non-MAT dichotomy. 

I like to frame this discussion around personalized medicine. We do not currently have tests or other predictors gauging which person with OUD will best recover at 5 years, and with which treatment. Some studies on PHPs suggest that health care professionals have the best 5-year return-to-work and premorbid function outcomes reported. This may be due to the generally late onset of SUDs in physicians. It could be that a given PHP works because of contingency management—follow the program and you can continue to be a physician. Contingency management is one of the most effective behavioral interventions for OUD and used much more frequently in PHPs than in non-PHP treatment settings. But few psychiatrists or addiction specialists understand the overall utility and efficacy.4 

We need more research to figure this out, but physician intervention, treatment, and recovery has been a model for successful 5-year outcomes and multidisciplinary treatment.5 Some programs are strictly oriented around a non-medication approach, but others are more flexible. Some programs have mandated MAT, like those requiring naltrexone for anesthesiologists6 returning to work, but others may prohibit MAT. Merlo has reported on outcomes and on MAT utilization in this population. She found that “individuals with opioid use disorders managed by PHPs can achieve long-term abstinence from opioids, alcohol, and other drugs without opioid substitution therapy (OST ) through participation in abstinence-based psychosocial treatment with extended, intensive care management following discharge.”7

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7 min read

We know vaping can cause serious lung problems. A new study says it might also cause cancer.

By Mark Gold, MD on December 19, 2019

In a study published this week, researchers asked tens of thousands of individuals over 12 years of age about their use of tobacco products, e-cigarettes, and their health, and conducted follow-up questions over three years.1 They found the development of lung problems like emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in individuals who had used e-cigarettes in the past or currently use them. Combined use of e-cigarette and tobacco products dramatically increased lung disease risks by an incredible 330 percent. The researchers concluded that, “Use of e-cigarettes is an independent risk factor for respiratory disease in addition to combustible tobacco smoking.” The study’s senior author, Stanton Glantz, told CNN, "I was a little surprised that we could find evidence on incident lung disease in the longitudinal study, because three years is a while but most studies that look at the development of lung disease go over 10 to 20 years.”

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that, as of December 10, 2019, there are 2,409 hospitalization cases of vaping-related lung injuries in the U.S., resulting in 52 deaths across 26 states and Washington, D.C.2 The FDA has found THC in most of the samples it’s studying from these cases and has highlighted Vitamin E acetate as a chemical linked to some of the lung injuries. But the CDC warns that it still does not know how many other chemicals and products may be involved, and says that, “the best way for people to ensure that they are not at risk while the investigation continues is to consider refraining from the use of all e-cigarette, or vaping, products.” NIDA just reported that 3.5 percent of 12th graders and 3 percent of 10th graders say they vape on a daily basis, with 14 percent of 12th graders also saying that they vaped marijuana in the previous month. That figure is twice as large as it was last year. 

Though federal officials have reportedly backed away from banning flavored vaping products3, some states have implemented such restrictions. And other national lawmakers are still considering similar options to confront the vaping epidemic.4 Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA Commissioner, has now recommended banning all cartridge-based e-cigarette products, which would include popular devices like Juul.5 Gottlieb, along with other experts, is worried about the epidemic of youth vaping, nicotine use and dependence which can lead to the use of tobacco-based products, the number one cause of preventable death, and other substances later in life. 

Stories about vaping-related severe lung diseases, the epidemic of youth use, and public policy responses are important for patients, families, medical professionals, and consumers to follow. But we should also continue to monitor research that paints an even more distressing picture of e-cigarette products. In a recent study, researchers looked at the association between e-cigarette use and cancer.

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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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