By Kayly Lange
There are many encouraging aspects of American health: cancer and heart disease deaths are going down, technology and medication are improving at a substantial rate, water consumption is out-pacing soda consumption, and Americans are eating more vegetables than ever. Yet last year, for the first time in decades, the U.S. life expectancy is on the decline.
Why the unexpected downturn in the average American’s lifespan? Many experts point to the addiction crisis that is sweeping across the nation. In the age of unprecedented opportunities and knowledge of health and wellness, many find themselves feeling trapped in poor health because of their addictions.
According to Dr. Tom Frieden, the former director of the CDC, it is the only aspect of American health that is getting worse.
However, the spotlight that the addiction crisis has received has motivated more politicians, clinicians, and programs to find help and prevent needless deaths. By targeting and seeking to prevent addiction, many are seeking to restore and improve American health.
Addiction: A Look at The Numbers
Addiction in America has skyrocketed over the past two decades to unprecedented levels. While other areas of health have been slowly improving, the number of Americans who are finding themselves trapped in addiction has been silently taking the lives of so many.
In fact, overdose deaths surpassed car and gun accidents combined to be the number one cause of death in Americans under 50. Each year has only seen an increase in deaths with 2016 being the highest annual jump yet.
It is estimated that there were 59,000 overdose deaths in 2016 and the numbers show no signs of slowing down. Although it takes the CDC 2 years to come out with the official number of overdose deaths for a year, the general opinion amongst many experts has been that deaths were higher than ever in 2016.
Part of the reason for this jump is the increased access to opioids. As the gateway to addiction, the startling number of Americans who take prescription pain relievers in any given year only fuels the crisis. More people used a prescription painkiller in the past year than tobacco.
The dangers of tobacco are well communicated to the public, and the social stigma surrounding it has turned away many who would potentially become addicted to it. However, not only are the dangers of opioid addiction not well known amongst the general population but since they are prescribed by doctors at such an alarming rate, many feel that it is safe to take.
As a result, more than 2 million Americans find themselves addicted to opioids. This addiction is not only dangerous in and of itself, but it also leads to addiction to even more harmful drugs. With the resurgence of fentanyl and heroin, the effect on American health has been disastrous.
Over the span of 6 years, from 2010 to 2016, addiction has skyrocketed 493%. What is equally concerning, however, is that treatment has only increased 65%. Because the crisis has been so new and unexpected, the country has found itself unprepared to handle it. Especially as attitudes and the shame towards addiction have been changing across the nation, there has been a recent push to expand treatments to those who need it.
However, the need to expand treatment to those who need it has never been direr. According to the Surgeon General, only 1 in 10 receive treatment for their addiction. Not only do so few receive treatment, but up to 40% of those who suffer from addiction never even seek treatment in the first place. Not only are so many Americans aware of the dangers of addiction when they are prescribed opioids, but they feel trapped once they are addicted and do not seek the help that they need.
Aspects of General Health Affected by Addiction
While the risk of overdosing is a serious, severe and common side effect of addiction, it is not the only aspect that will affect the health of the one addicted. There are other serious health complications that can arise because of addiction.
One of the first negative consequences of addiction is mental illness. There is a very strong link between addiction and mental illness, and many drugs have been known to fuel and even cause mental illness in otherwise healthy individuals before addiction.
The most common mental illnesses to be fueled by addiction are depression, anxiety, and paranoia. Although many might have these illnesses before their addiction, the drugs further propel and amplify the issues that they had before.
Another serious side effect of long-term drug misuse is heart disease. Drugs are extremely stressful on the heart and will often lead to a heart attack after too many uses.
Diseases of the lungs are also a common side effect of certain drugs. Not only are those who inhale drugs (such as cocaine) at risk for pulmonary issues, but there is also an increase in injection drug users as well. Complications include pneumonia, bronchitis, hemorrhaging, emphysema and pulmonary edema. Long-term use of drugs can create lung problems in otherwise healthy individuals.
Those who are addicted to drugs also find themselves more susceptible to certain cancers as well. There are a wide variety of cancers that can result from any drug addiction from lung cancer, liver cancer, digestive system cancers and has even been known to be a factor in leukemia. Any addictive substance over a long period will break down the immune system and leave those addicted vulnerable to certain cancers.
Kidney failure is also a common side-effect of long-term addiction. Any substance must pass through the kidneys before leaving the body, so abuse will eventually leave the kidneys damaged. Drug and alcohol abuse, even when not taken to overdose levels, will still leave serious physical consequences for those who do not address their addiction in time.
Lastly, a serious effect of addiction is negative birth outcomes. Common side effects for children born to addicted mothers include stunted growth, facial abnormalities, behavioral and learning problems, and poor language development. Addiction has far-reaching consequences for American health and affects far more than the one addicted.
Although it is hard for researchers to estimate exactly how many children are suffering because of drug use, the skyrocketing rates of addiction in America will lead to more children affected.
The Addiction Crisis: The Downfall of American Health
Although Americans seem to be getting healthier in many aspects, the rise of the addiction crisis has left many in poorer health than ever before. Not only has the addiction crisis lowered the average American’s lifespan, but it has also created more heart disease, kidney failure, liver diseases, mental illnesses, and extremely affected children.
To improve health in the U.S., then, addiction treatment is vital. Although there has been a slow rise in addiction treatment, many government agencies are seeking to step up their treatment resources. It is impossible to neglect those who have a drug and alcohol abuse problem and expect health to continue to rise in the country.
It is only by addressing addiction issues as medical issues and taking the addiction crisis seriously that we can hope to improve health in the United States.