Drug Abuse Leads to an Increase in Working-Age Deaths

People in a subway going to work
(Photo by Kristi Blokhin/Shutterstock.com)

Over the last few years, several articles, research papers, and studies have been published, all of which indicate a decline in life expectancy for the American people. That’s something to be concerned about. In one of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced countries in the world, life expectancy should be going up, not going down.

Several explanations have been given for why life expectancies are dropping in the United States. For example, in November of 2019, U.S. News published an article that argued that despair is the critical factor in a shrinking life expectancy. Despair, economic struggle, and, not surprisingly, drug overdose deaths.

Shorter Lives Linked to Despair

When Americans start living shorter lives, when more people are dying each year, (and well before their time too), medicos, scientists, and epidemiologists alike scramble to find answers. According to the U.S. News article, the death toll is increasing among working-age adults, particularly those who live in economically troubled areas like the Midwest, the “Rust Belt” (northern U.S. steel production states), Appalachia, and parts of the Southeast.

When people die well before their time, that causes the average life expectancy to drop. Again according to the U.S. News article, overall American life expectancy fell between 2014 and 2017, the longest period of a steadily falling life expectancy since the combined loss of life from World War I and the Swine Flu Epidemic of 1918.

According to research done by a team of experts at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine’s Center on Society and Health (reported on in U.S. News), the primary reason for the current, falling life expectancy is likely economic despair.

The article goes on to talk about major economic shifts in the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s. This refers to deindustrialization, outsourcing of jobs, and a shrinking middle class. Today, entire communities that were quite prosperous in decades past are now economically downtrodden.

Medical Experts Comment on Health, Despair, and Drug Use

Dr. Steven Woolf, the director emeritus of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, commented on the new findings. He talked about how a drug problem is a lot more than a drug problem. He talked about how a drug problem is an economic problem and a health problem too. According to the doctor, “It’s noteworthy that the Rust Belt is where we’re seeing the largest number of excess deaths in this pattern. You have people and communities that have gone through a long period of economic stress. If you’re a family that’s been struggling for many years with these kinds of stresses, that might lead to a set of consequences that could affect your health in multiple ways.”

Hospital staff

According to Dr. Woolf and his team, there’s been a six percent increase in death rates among people between the ages of 25 and 64. But there’s been a 25 percent increase in death rates among people between the ages of 25 and 44. That is an age bracket where people should not be experiencing increasing death rates. The 25 to 44 age band should be experiencing a receding death rate as healthcare technology improves.

Another expert, Dr. Howard Koh, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, also commented: “You can’t be healthy if you’re living in poverty. You can’t really be healthy if you don’t have stable housing. It’s difficult to be healthy without stable employment. Spirituality and social engagement are critical to well-being. We are really in an important point in our public health history where medical experts are realizing that health is much more than what happens to you in the doctor’s office.”

What is the Scope of Drug Use in America?

Since the late-1990s, the United States has experienced a growing drug problem. And today, the sheer scope of drug use in America is more than concerning. According to a detailed report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

“In 2017, approximately 19.7 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD) related to their use of alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year…”
“In 2017, approximately 19.7 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder (SUD) related to their use of alcohol or illicit drugs in the past year, including 14.5 million people who had an alcohol use disorder and 7.5 million people who had an illicit drug use disorder. … An estimated 2.1 million people had an opioid use disorder, which includes 1.7 million people with a prescription pain reliever use disorder and 0.7 million people with a heroin use disorder.”

The United States has a population of about 327 million people. If almost 20 million people are using drugs, that means about six percent of the U.S population is addicted. And as drug use is a highly toxic and dangerous activity, when more people use drugs, more people die from drug use.

The U.S. News piece mentioned earlier in this article bears grim tidings for Americans. And if we look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for additional data, we find more facts and statistics on drug overdoses.

According to the CDC, there are about 192 drug overdose deaths every day in the United States. In 2017, 70,237 people died from drug overdoses. Opioids were the main driver behind such overdoses, with opioid drugs alone claiming 47,600 lives in 2017.

People are struggling with poverty. Often, drug use or heavy drinking can seem like an escape from poor living conditions. But drug use and drinking is never a justified escape from anything.

What Can We Do About It?

There is much that needs to be done to fully correct the conditions in America that led to the drug addiction epidemic, the rising death toll among middle-aged, working-class Americans, and the resulting drop in life expectancy. There are social and economic factors to take into account. It’s a big problem, and it’s not going to resolve overnight.

However, one thing we can all do is help those in our communities who need help. We can help those who are actively using drugs and alcohol. These are the highest-risk individuals, the ones who are most likely to end up as an overdose statistic. We can help such individuals by assisting them in finding and getting into residential drug and alcohol addiction treatment centers.

Residential drug rehabs that offer long-term programs are the best solution for people who struggle with drug or alcohol addiction. If you know someone who needs help with a drug problem or a drinking habit, make sure they get that help today.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.