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Opioids Are The Leading Cause Of Death In Americans Under 50

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

Medically reviewed by

David Hunter, MA.Ed, LPC

March 6, 2019

The United States is facing a growing problem when it comes to the use of legal and illegal opioids. These drugs have quickly become the leading cause of death in the US for individuals under the age of 50 because of how addictive they are and their potential for overdose.

If someone were to ask you what is currently the leading cause of death of Americans under age 50, what would you guess? Perhaps cancer or heart failure, some of the largest causes, or even death by gunshot.

But heroin-related deaths have now surpassed those causes, as well as death by gun homicide, according to CBS News. In fact, opioid-related deaths now account for the majority of deaths in Americans under age 50.

How can this be? Opioids account for the illicit drug heroin, and all prescription opioids, like morphine or fentanyl. The drugs are prescribed for the quick, strong relief of pain they produce. Unfortunately, with this relief comes great risk of addiction.

At the same time, in the past few decades, there has been a vast increase in the prescription of opioids overall. As CBS News explains, “In Ohio alone, nearly four billion opioid pills were prescribed across Ohio between 2011 and 2015.”

On a related note, Ohio led the nation in overdose deaths in 2015, and reported a minimum of 4,100 people who died from overdose last year. This number continues to increase each year, with opioids responsible for the majority of it.

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An Increasing Problem

Our nation currently faces staggering numbers of overdose-related deaths, many of which are due to opioids. For some perspective, more Americans died in the last two years from opiate addiction than died during the entire Vietnam War, according to the Huffington Post.

The Huffington Post also explains that, as of June 2017, “the New York Times reported that drug overdose deaths in 2016 would most likely land someplace between 59,000 and 65,000 Americans. That is a 19 percent rise in deaths from the 52,404 recorded in 2015.”

Why such an increase? Opioids all have highly addictive properties. This is due to the way the drugs affect a person. Opioids bind to opioid receptors in the brain, reducing the perception of pain and changing the brain’s communication pathways. After that, your brain wants this effect again and again—euphoria and greatly diminished pain—and within a short time, you’re addicted.

This is a problem that many fall victim to, as the powerful effects of opioids can develop into addiction after just a short time of using the drugs. Further, opioids are only prescribed for a short period. So those who do become addicted and no longer have access to a prescription may begin to seek it through other means, like doctor shopping (to obtain more prescriptions) and when that doesn’t work, seeking alternatives.

Heroin is another opioid, and easier to obtain and less expensive. Not everyone who takes a prescription for pain relief realizes the risk of addiction they’re under, but a large percent of people new to heroin use first abused prescription opioids. Both heroin and prescription opioids come with a myriad of adverse side effects and consequences, the largest of which is addiction.

Consequences Of Opioid Abuse

Immediately after taking opioids, you feel a rush of euphoria and greatly reduced pain (a sense of general well-being). It’s this rush that fosters addiction. But opioids can cause a number of health effects and consequences.

Short-term effects of opioid abuse include:

  • Constipation
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Slowed Breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • In extreme cases, coma or death

With prolonged use, opioids can cause a number of complications in your life. First, they can lead to addiction. Addiction to opioids means experiencing physical dependence and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms when not using the drugs. These symptoms can include headache, nausea, vomiting, and more.

Continued abuse of opioids can also create a tolerance in you. This means that when you take opioids, you no longer feel the effects as you did before. But if you’ve already succumbed to addiction, you will likely continue taking the drug, and larger and more frequent doses of it, to try to achieve the same high.

This is what leads to overdose, perhaps the most dangerous consequence of opioid abuse. Overdose occurs from too much of a substance built up in your system, whether from one time of use or a series of abuse.

A Call For Help

It’s clear to see that opioid abuse has become an overwhelming problem in our nation, the results of which can be devastating. The question is: what can we do about it? As the Huffington Post aptly states, “we need treatment facilities, we need them now, and we need to create a radical model to accomplish the herculean task.”

But effective treatment facilities are available, and radical treatment models are already in place. It’s simply a matter of spreading the word.

At, we have all the resources to help people overcome opioid addiction, learn how to change behavior to ensure a substance-free life, and implement principles that will keep them sober long after leaving rehab.

What Treatment Is Available For Opioid Abuse?

Opioid abuse treatment has to be intensive. That’s why our programs work to treat not just the physical symptoms and side effects of abuse, but the behavior and mental effects that contribute to abuse.

First, when you receive treatment for opioid abuse you’ll need a stringent detoxification period to rid your body of toxins. This process is best achieved with medical supervision, and medication assisted therapy as needed. Both are offered at all of our rehab centers.

Once you complete detox, you can begin truly healing with an integrated treatment program. This program varies among rehab centers and according to individual need, but may include a number of treatment modalities:

  • Behavioral therapy: such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which works to replace negative behaviors with ones that will ensure a fulfilled, sober life
  • Counseling: to work through troubling thoughts and emotions during recovery
  • Adventure or wilderness therapy: these alternative forms of therapy allow you to heal mind, body, and spirit while connecting with nature and learning valuable life skills
  • Nutrition and exercise guidance: two components not to be forgotten in treatment, as both contribute largely to overall health and wellness
  • Aftercare support and resources: continuing treatment principles and involvement is a large deciding factor in success of recovery

All of these and more are offered through our rehab centers, and will give you the greatest chance at overcoming addiction to opioids. Recovery is not simply beating addiction symptoms, but learning to build a life that will not allow addiction to get back in.

What You Can Do

So what can you do if you or someone you know is suffering with opioid abuse or addiction? Get help. Treatment remains the best recourse we have to fight the terrors of opioid abuse and subsequent overdose.

We want to help you or your loved one change your life long-term. Contact us today at to learn more about opioid abuse, the treatments available and the rehab centers which offer them.

U.S. National Library Of Medicine - Opioid Abuse And Addiction

CBS News - Overdoses Now Leading Cause Of Death Of Americans Under 50

Huffington Post - Heroin: Now The Leading Cause Of Death In Americans Under 50

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