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1 in 5 Deaths Among Young Adults in the US is Opioid-related

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New research suggests that 1 in 5 deaths among young adults in the United States is opioid-related. The study was led by researchers at the St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, ON, results were published in JAMA Network Open today. 

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a broad class of pain-relieving drugs that act on opioid receptors in the body. There are three main types of opioid:

Type of OpioidExamples
Naturalcodeine, morphine
hydrocodone, heroin*
fentanyl, tramadol

*Illegal drug

Legal opioid medications can be prescribed, if deemed appropriate, by a physician to relieve short-term severe pain. However, over the past few years there has been increasing concern about the misuse of opioids.1 In particular, two key adverse effects of opioids, physical dependence and tolerance, can lead to overdose, addiction and drug abuse. Regular and/or long-term use of opioids should therefore be avoided.2

The Opioid Crisis

In the US opioids are being prescribed at an increasing rate and due to the related negative health consequences, the use of opioids has developed into a leading public health concern – and their misuse has led to a public health crisis.3 Back in the 1990’s numerous pharma companies reassured medical professionals that there was no risk of patients becoming addicted to opioids which led them to prescribe opioids at an increased rate, consequently widespread misuse of opioids resulted before it was revealed that they were indeed highly addictive.4

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, every day >115 people in the US die from overdosing on opioids.4

Opioid-related Deaths: The Current Situation

This new study aims to provide an up-to-date picture of the current status and consequence of opioid use in the US. Using the CDC WONDER Multiple Cause of Death Online Database, Tara Gomes et al reviewed all US deaths between January 1, 2001 and December 31, 2016, to determine the burden of opioid-related mortality over time.

The study found that:3
  • From 2001–2016, the percentage of US opioid-related deaths increased by 345% 
  • By 2016 1 in 65 deaths were related to opioid use, compared to 1 in 255 in 2001
  • By 2016 men accounted for 67.5% of all opioid-related deaths
  • The highest burden was among those aged 24 to 35 years

The study results highlight the alarming increase in opioid-related deaths among young adults, particularly males. In the US, years of life lost (YLL) (1 681 359 YLL in 2016) from opioid-related deaths exceeded those attributable to hypertension, HIV/AIDS, and pneumonia. The study authors also note that although opioid-related deaths do not represent a large percentage of overall deaths in adults >55 years, this has increased in recent years and could warrant monitoring and further investigation.3

In a recent press release, first author of the study, Dr. Tara Gomes, commented:

"Despite the amount of attention that has been placed on this public health issue, we are increasingly seeing the devastating impact that early loss of life from opioids is having across the United States,"

"In the absence of a multidisciplinary approach to this issue that combines access to treatment, harm reduction and education, this crisis will impact the U.S. for generations."


  1. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids. Accessed: May 31 2018
  2. http://reachnj.gov/opioids.shtml. Accessed: May 31 2018
  3. Gomes, T, et al. (2018) Burden of Opioid-Related Mortality in the United States. JAMA Network Open.
  4. https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis. Accessed: May 31 2018