Drug Overdoses Fueling Rise in Premature Death Rates, Study Finds

Premature death rates rose across urban and rural communities and racial/ethnic groups in 2015, driven by an increase in drug overdose deaths, a study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute finds.

The 2017 edition of County Health Rankings provides in-state rankings based on the length and quality of life, and on factors affecting those outcomes, including insurance coverage, access to primary care physicians and mental health providers, educational attainment, housing, and pollution. According to the 2017 County Health Rankings Key Findings Report (16 pages, PDF), 85 percent of the increase in premature deaths was attributable to an increase in premature deaths among Americans between the ages of 15 and 44, with drug overdose ranking as the leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-olds. While overall premature death rates consistently have been highest among American Indians/Alaskan Natives and African Americans and in rural counties, overdose-related premature death rates in 2015 were highest among whites and American Indian/Alaskan Natives. Over the past decade, large suburban metro counties have gone from having the lowest overdose-related premature death rates by community type to the highest.

The study also found that the rise in premature deaths among Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 was attributable to a rise in injury deaths — most commonly due to motor vehicle crashes, homicide or suicide by firearm, followed by drug overdoses. Among white and Latino/a youth, most injury deaths in 2015 were unintentional, while among Asian/Pacific Islanders and African Americans, a greater share of injury deaths were due to suicide or homicide.

This year's rankings also included a new measure focused on "disconnected youth" — those between the ages of 16 to 24 who are not in school or working. About 4.9 million young people — one out of eight in that age group nationwide — are disconnected, with higher rates in rural counties (21.6 percent) — particularly counties in the South and West — than in urban ones (13.7 percent ), as well as among American Indians/Alaskan Natives, African Americans, and Latino/as.

"The County Health Rankings show us that where people live plays a key role in how long and how well they live," said RWJF president and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey. "The rankings allow local leaders to clearly see and prioritize the challenges they face — whether it's rising premature death rates or the growing drug overdose epidemic — so they can bring community leaders and residents together to find solutions."