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U.S. drug overdose death rates rank highest among wealthy countries

The United States may be a leading country in the global economy, but when it comes to life expectancy, the US keeps dropping in the ranks.

Rising drug overdose death rates in recent years have begun to impact life expectancy, and now a new study found that the US has the highest number of drug overdose deaths compared to other high-income countries like Sweden or Japan.

In the past two decades alone, drug overdose mortality has more than tripled, and researchers from the University of Southern California examined how life expectancy and drug overdose death rates in the U.S. compared to 18 other “peer countries,” or countries with similar economies.

The study, published in the journal Population and Development Review, is the most comprehensive international comparison of its kind to date.

“The United States is experiencing a drug overdose epidemic of unprecedented magnitude, not only judging by its own history but also compared to the experiences of other high-income countries,” said Jessica Ho, an author of the study. “For over a decade now, the United States has had the highest drug overdose mortality among its peer countries.”

Data from the Human Mortality Database, World Health Organization Mortality Database, and several statistics agencies in the US and Canada were reviewed and analyzed for the study.

The researchers used the data to compile drug overdose death rates for 18 countries based on year, sex, country and age between 1994 and 2015.

Before the early 2000s, Finland and Sweden had the highest rates of drug overdose deaths, but the researchers identified a shift and widening gap in life expectancy in the US.

By 2013, drug overdose in the US accounted for a 12 percent gap in life expectancy for men between the US and other high-income countries and an eight percent gap for women.

Now, the drug overdose death rates in the US are 3.5 times higher than the other countries in the study. Italy and Japan have the lowest drug overdose death rates, and the US’s rates are double that of Finland and Sweden, the countries with second highest drug overdose mortalities behind the US.

“On average, Americans are living 2.6 fewer years than people in other high-income countries,” said Ho. “This puts the United States more than a decade behind the life expectancy levels achieved by other high-income countries. American drug overdose deaths are widening this already significant gap and causing us to fall even further behind our peer countries.”

The National Safety Council announced that Americans are more likely to die of an accidental opioid overdose than in a car crash, which is a core part of the problem.

One potential driver of US drug overdose deaths is the opioid crisis along with a lack of substance abuse treatment available.

While the US is struggling with opioid dependency and high drug overdose deaths, the researchers say that soon other high-income countries may face similar problems and only further drive down life expectancies.

“The use of prescription opioids and synthetic drugs like fentanyl are becoming increasingly common in many high-income countries and constitute a common challenge to be confronted by these countries,” said Ho.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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