Recent findings from a team of British researchers show that people who use/abuse heroin and other opioid substances have steeply increased chances of dying from overdoses, homicides and other life-shortening causes.
People affected by opioid use disorder (addiction and/or abuse related to the consumption of any opioid drug or medication) encounter a number of serious or severe health risks, including increased chances of dying prematurely. In a study published in January 2015 in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from three British universities used a large-scale project to explore the common causes of death in people who inappropriately or illegally consume opioid substances. These researchers uncovered significantly increased exposure to several deadly outcomes among opioid users/abusers.
Dangers of Opioid Use
Opioids are dangerous for two basic reasons. First, all drugs and medications belonging to this large family of substances can produce lasting changes in a part of the brain called the pleasure center when consumed with excessive frequency and/or in excessive amounts. Opioid-related change in the pleasure center is the chief underlying factor in the development of physical opioid dependence. Crucially, any person affected by opioid dependence has clear risks for developing the uncontrolled behaviors and widespread changes in brain function associated with full-blown opioid addiction. This fact holds especially true for people who consume opioids outside of the context of doctor-monitored medical treatment.
All opioid drugs and medications also substantially slow the rate of cell-to-cell communication inside the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain). This is vitally important because human beings rely on a baseline level of communication among these cells for the continuing support of such basic functions as the maintenance of a normal heartbeat and the involuntary urge to breathe. A person who consumes too much of an opioid substance can crash his or her central nervous system and trigger the onset of a potentially lethal opioid overdose. While this scenario is largely associated with the consumption of the powerful drug heroin, it can occur in association with the excessive consumption of any kind of opioid.
Commonly Abused Opioids
In the U.S., abusive use of prescription opioid medications is much more common than consumption of heroin or other illegal opioid drugs. In fact, Americans abuse prescription opioids more often than they abuse any other type of legally restricted medication. Americans also die from opioid medication abuse more often than they die from the consumption of heroin or other illegal opioid drugs. However, in recent years, the rate of heroin-related death has risen at a substantially higher pace than the rate of prescription opioid-related death.
How Do Older Opioid Users Die?
In the study published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, researchers from the United Kingdom’s University of Manchester, University of Strathclyde and University of Bristol used data gathered from 198,247 opioid consumers between the years 2005 and 2009 to identify the most common causes of death in people involved with problematic opioid intake. In part, the researchers undertook this large-scale project because they wanted to know if the risks for death associated with opioid abuse/addiction change over time. For this reason, they specifically focused much of their attention on the mortality outcomes for opioid users/abusers between the ages of 45 and 64.
A total of 3,974 study participants died during the timeframe under consideration. After analyzing the available information, the researchers concluded that the single most common cause of death among opioid users/abusers (appearing in 44 percent of all fatalities) is a drug or medication overdose. They also concluded that the chances of dying from an overdose increase substantially with age. Other causes of death that appeared with unusual frequency in the participants included homicide, serious infection, suicide, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease, liver disease and lung disease. Risks for many of these forms of death grew greater as the participants grew older.
Overall, the study’s authors concluded that a person who uses/abuses opioid substances is fully 500 percent more likely to die at any given point than the average individual. Among older opioid consumers between the ages of 45 and 64, the most dramatically elevated cause of death is homicide. People in this age range have a rate of homicide exposure 2,600 percent higher than the rate found in the general population.