The number of premature deaths due to drug overdoses has skyrocketed in large suburban counties in the United States, which went from having the lowest to the highest rate over the past 10 years, according to a new study.
Released Wednesday morning by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health, the report draws the conclusion that premature deaths—caused by far more factors than just drug overdoses—are on the rise across urban and rural communities, as well as racial and ethnic groups.
The researchers note that “Premature death has consistently been highest in rural counties and among American Indian/Alaskan Native and black populations.” Young people aged 15 to 44 have seen the greatest spike in premature deaths in recent years.
“Drug overdose was by far the single leading cause of premature death by injury in 2015 and contributed to the accelerated rise in premature death from 2014 to 2015,” the study determines. “Large suburban metro counties went from having the lowest to the highest rate of premature death due to drug overdose within the past decade.”
Titled the “2017 Health County Rankings,” the report concludes that, in addition to large suburbs, “smaller metro and rural counties” also suffer the highest rates of lethal drug overdoses.
The annual study states that a key driver of premature death is “youth disconnection,” defined as young people “not working or in school” who are “disconnected from opportunities to live long and healthy lives.” This category correlates with profound disparities across race and class lines.
“Rates of youth disconnection are higher in rural counties (21.6 percent) than in urban counties (13.7 percent), particularly rural counties in the South and West,” the study notes. “Places with high levels of youth disconnection have higher rates of unemployment, child poverty, children in single-parent households, teen births, and lower educational attainment.”
“The main storyline here is that it’s happening across the country,” Jan O’Neill, an associate researcher and community coach at County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, told AlterNet. “It’s an equal opportunity crisis, but the accelerated rate is in suburban and smaller metro counties.”
“The contributors have to do with different community types,” she continued. “Drug overdoses are highest among certain demographics: white and American Indian/Alaskan Native populations. This is also rising because of an increase among 15- to 44-year-olds. For this younger generation, we’re also seeing an increase in car crashes, suicides and homicides, not just drugs. We can treat this as a public health crisis and not something that we need to punish.”
The findings are consistent with a rise in what some researchers refer to as “deaths of despair.” A separate paper recently released by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton determined that premature deaths due to drug overdoses, suicides, alcoholism and other factors are on the rise for middle-aged white people with a high-school education or less. By contrast, mortality rates are falling for white Americans with college degrees. The scholars identify a number of socioeconomic factors behind this trend, including an overall decline in the working class.
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