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Drug Overdose Deaths May Have Hit an All-Time High In 2016

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Drug addiction and overdose might seem like a soap opera-style plot or something out of a crime show. But in reality, drug abuse is becoming increasingly common.

So common, in fact, that drug overdose is the new leading cause of death in Americans under 50, according to preliminary data for 2016 analyzed and reported by the New York Times. They found that the number of Americans who died of drug overdose in 2016 will likely exceed 59,000 (the official report hasn't been released yet)—up from 52,404 in 2015, making it the largest increase ever recorded in one year. This estimate surpasses peak levels of motor vehicle accident deaths (in 1972), peak HIV deaths (1995), and peak gun deaths (1993), according to their analysis.

It's important to note that these aren't the final stats for 2016; the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's annual report won't be released until December. However, the New York Times looked at estimates for 2016 from hundreds of state health departments, county coroners, and medical examiners to compile their overall prediction, including the locations that accounted for 76 percent of reported overdose deaths in 2015.

One major factor in this increase is the opioid epidemic that's sweeping America. An estimated 2 million Americans are currently addicted to opioids, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The scary part is that many of these addictions didn't start by someone using sketchy drugs or engaging in illegal behavior. Many people get hooked on opioids legally and accidentally through prescription painkillers for injuries or chronic pain. Then, they often resort to illegal drugs like heroin to fulfill the continued need to get high without needing a prescription. That's why the Senate recently opened an investigation into five major U.S. pharmaceutical drug companies that produce painkillers. They're looking at whether these drug companies have fueled opioid abuse by using inappropriate marketing tactics, downplaying the risk of addiction, or starting patients on excessively high dosages. And, unfortunately, overdose isn't the only health issue that comes with this epidemic. Hepatitis C cases have tripled in the last five years primarily due to the rise in heroin use and the sharing of infected needles.

Yeah, there's a lot of bad news here—and the outlook isn't any better for 2017. For now, you can take action to educate yourself (here's everything you need to know about using prescription painkillers) and keep an eye out for friends or family members who may be suffering from addiction (watch for these common drug abuse warning signs).

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