18 Sep North Americans Lose Most Years to Opioid Addiction
People in the U.S. and Canada abuse opioid drugs and medications at a fairly high rate; in turn, opioid drug and medication abusers have heightened risks for such seriously harmful outcomes as opioid addiction and fatal or nonfatal opioid overdoses. In a review published in April 2014 in the journal Addiction, a team of British, Australian and American researchers conducted a worldwide investigation of the level of harm associated with opioid dependence/addiction, using a measurement called disability-adjusted life years. These researchers concluded that, out of all global regions, North America is most heavily impacted by opioid-related harm.
Almost 5 million people abuse a prescription opioid medication in America every year, according to figures compiled by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In addition, about 669,000 people who are not imprisoned or homeless use/abuse heroin. In 2012 (the last year with fully available figures), about 1,880,000 people misused an opioid medication for the first time; the typical new abuser was in his or her early 20s. About 156,000 people started using heroin in 2012; again, the typical new consumer of this drug was in his or her early 20s. The overall rate of prescription opioid abuse reached its peak in the first decade of the 2000s; however, current figures represent only a slight drop-off from peak levels. Monthly and yearly rates for heroin use/abuse have risen steadily almost every year since 2007, and the overall number of users has almost doubled since that time. All told, residents of the U.S. and Canada consume more opioid substances than the residents of any other countries in the world.
The high level of prescription opioid abuse and expanding rate of heroin abuse have been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the two most prominent forms of opioid-related harm: opioid dependence/addiction and opioid overdose. Millions of American adults and teenagers have a dependence on an opioid medication; in turn, large numbers of these affected individuals transition from opioid dependence (not necessarily a debilitating state in the context of prescription opioid use) to opioid addiction. Although considerable emphasis has rightfully been given to the increasing risks for heroin-related overdoses, prescription opioid overdoses occur even more frequently, the authors of a study published in June 2014 in the American Journal of Public Health report. A number of factors help explain the rise in opioid medication-related overdoses, including the ways in which doctors commonly prescribe opioid painkillers, specific behaviors and preferences in the people who abuse these painkillers and social and demographic factors localized to individual urban and rural locales.
Relative Risks for Harm
In the review published in Addiction, researchers from the University of Washington, the United Kingdom’s Kings College, London and six Australian institutions used a large-scale analysis of previously conducted studies and other resources to estimate the risks for opioid-related harm in 187 countries throughout the world. Specifically, the researchers looked at disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), a measurement that includes the average number of years that a person with a given health problem (in this case, opioid dependence/addiction) spends in a disabled state, as well as the average number of years that such a person loses to premature death.
The researchers preliminarily determined that roughly 15.5 million global inhabitants were affected by opioid dependence/addiction during the timeframe of the review (2010). They concluded that men have higher risks for dependence/addiction than women; they also concluded that, on a global scale, the peak rates for dependence/addiction occur in people between the ages of 25 and 29. Three regions of the world have unusually high rates for opioid dependence/addiction: Australasia (Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea), Western Europe and North America. When opioid-related harm is calculated through disability-adjusted life years, North America has the highest rate of such harm in the world. Other heavily affected areas include Australasia, the African continent south of the Sahara Desert and Eastern Europe.
Overall, the study’s authors note that opioid dependence/addiction places a substantial global burden on the health of human society. In terms of opioid-related disability and mortality, the U.S. and other areas of North America bear a disproportionately heavy load. For every 100,000 individuals in the total population, North American residents lose about 292 years to disability or premature death as a result of a dependence on or addiction to an opioid substance.
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