The rate at which Pennsylvanians have lost their lives to drug overdoses jumped 14-fold between 1979 and 2014, a new study finds.
The finding mirrors a national trend: A report issued in December by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also found drug overdoses have reached record highs across the United States.
Many of those deaths are linked to the abuse of heroin or prescription narcotic painkillers such as Oxycontin or Vicodin, according to the CDC.
The University of Pittsburgh researchers behind the new study say their state now ranks among the top 20 states for drug overdose deaths.
“Our latest analysis reveals that drug overdoses are the biggest problem facing our nation in terms of years of life lost — more than car crashes, or cancer or HIV — and we as a society need to work together to solve it,” study co-author Dr. Donald Burke, dean of the School of Public Health, said in a university news release.
The largest increase in fatal drug overdoses since 1979 — a nearly 22-fold rise — occurred among people aged 35 to 44, his team said.
However, when looking specifically at 2014 the highest overdose death rate occurred among people aged 25 to 34, according to the study published March 10 in the journal PLoS One.
Race also seemed to matter: Overdose death rates peak between the ages of 25 and 44 for white men and between the ages of 45 and 65 for black men, which indicates different drug use patterns between the races.
Overdose death rates were higher in men than in women, but the rate among women rose more sharply since 1979, the research showed — particularly between 2010 and 2014.
“Previous research has shown that women are more prone to having accelerated progression from their first drug use to substance abuse and often enter into treatment programs with more severe dependence than men,” study author Lauren Balmert noted in the news release.
In addition, most women who enter substance abuse treatment have children and are more reliant on public insurance, said Balmert, a graduate student researcher in biostatistics. Both factors can discourage a woman from entering or remaining in treatment, she said.
High overdose death rates among women in Pennsylvania were seen among whites aged 25 to 54 and blacks aged 35 to 64, compared to the national peak average of ages 45 to 54.
Overdose deaths were highest in counties of southwestern Pennsylvania, those around Philadelphia and those in northeast Pennsylvania near Scranton, the study found.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more on drug abuse and addiction.