Drugs may kill twice as many Americans as government records suggest, a new study claims.
In 2016, the reported rate of drug-related deaths among 15- to 64-year-olds was 9% -- compared with about 4% several years earlier -- with 63,000 deaths classified as drug-related.
However, the new study concluded that the actual number of drug-related deaths could have been about 142,000 in 2016.
"Drugs can kill in other ways," said study co-author Samuel Preston. He is a professor of sociology and a member of the Population Studies Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, impaired judgment, suicide, circulatory disease -- these are all affected by drug use. People who are perpetual drug users have much higher mortality in general," Preston explained in a university news release.
For the study, his team analyzed more than 44 million death certificates issued nationwide over 18 years and identified just over 667,000 that were coded as drug-related.
But the team's models showed that these drug-coded deaths -- which include drug overdoses and mental and behavioral disorders related to drugs -- accounted for only about half of all drug-associated deaths.
"It's obvious that the drug epidemic is a major American disaster," Preston said. "The basic records being kept are annual reports on the number of deaths from drug overdose. But that's only part of the picture."
According to study co-author Dana Glei, "The drug epidemic is probably killing a lot more Americans than we think. That's the main point we're trying to make." Glei is senior research investigator at the Center for Population and Health at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.
The study found that drug use decreased life expectancy after age 15 by an average of 1.4 years for men and by 0.7 years for women. But those figures were more than two times higher in West Virginia, the state hardest hit by the country's opioid crisis.
Glei said that the drug use-related decreases in life expectancy "may not sound like a lot, but it's a big effect. It's big enough to account for the recent reversal of life-expectancy trends in the United States."
West Virginia had the highest rates of drug-associated deaths among 15- to 64-year-olds: 39% for men and 27% for women. Other states with high rates included Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The lowest rate for both sexes was in Nebraska, with Iowa, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota rounding out the five states with the lowest rates among men.
In terms of regions, rates are high in the Southwest, Appalachia and New England, and low in the Great Plains, the findings showed.
The study was published Jan. 15 in the journal PLOS One.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about drug addiction and treatment.