Death from opioid overdose is on the rise in Connecticut — and may soon surpass automobile accidents as the leading cause of accidental death, according to a recent study by Yale researchers.
The study linked this finding to the fact that overdosing on opioids, which include heroin, morphine and some prescription painkiller drugs, is becoming increasingly more common among the middle-aged than among young adults in the state, said Robert Heimer, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health and the study’s lead researcher.
“The physiological effects of opioids on the nervous system become more severe as people age,” Heimer explained. “We’re seeing people in their 40s and 50s accidentally overdosing because they don’t realize that their system has become more sensitive.”
The study, which was based on the analysis of state medical records from the last 11 years, lends support to past data documenting the rise in opioid use nationwide.
While the majority of documented deaths are due to heroin overdose, the rise in deaths is due largely to overdoses of painkillers like methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Heimer cited increased visibility, including the vast amount of information on the Internet about drugs, as a possible reason abuse is on the rise.
The growing problem is socioeconomically indiscriminate, affecting almost all towns in Connecticut, possibly because some drugs are expensive, he said. For this reason, cities like New Haven, which is the poorest in the state, were not disproportionately affected.
For city officials, drug enforcement can be a never-ending chase.
“The interesting thing about drug addiction is that the popularity in a particular drug comes and goes,” Frances Clark, Ward 7 alderman, said. “No one has been able to solve these problems completely — only manage them.”
New Haven already has preventative measures to address the issue, Clark added. For instance, the city has invested in education programs targeted at youth, methadone clinics to rehabilitate abusers and drug-enforcement efforts to crack down on drug dealers.
Awareness is the first step to reversing the trend, Heimer said. The problem often starts in the home: forgotten prescriptions in the medicine cabinet can end up on the black market, if kids see them as a lucrative opportunity.
Since drug use is often a social activity, he said that educating drug users about how to respond should a fellow user begin overdosing is key.
While no one disagrees that opioid abuse is a problem, treatment for addicts, those most at risk of overdose, is more controversial.
“Before the recession, we were pushing legislation to get drug abusers access to opiate blockers,” said Matthew Lopes ’72 MPH ’77, who works for the HIV/AIDS division in the New Haven Mayor’s Office. “The blocker is available; we want to get it into the hands that need it most, so they can prevent an overdose and save lives.”
Heimer’s interest in drug use began in the summer of 1990, when New Haven set up the first needle exchange in state as a way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“These programs decreased mortality and morbidity and have done a good job preventing disease, but as the situation improved, I began to realize overdose was the next problem that needed to be addressed,” Heimer said.
Heimer said the team is now embarking on a study of suburban drug users to determine whether they are above or below the mean income level of suburban dwellers.