Harvard Mental Health Letter

In Brief: Why drug addicts die

In Brief

Why drug addicts die

It may not usually be the drugs, a Swedish study suggests. Young adults who are treated for drug abuse and addiction have a high death rate, and that might be expected to result from drug-induced overdoses, disease, violence, and accidents. But the study suggests that mortality in young drug abusers is associated more with psychiatric symptoms and mental illness than with drug abuse itself.

Researchers followed 125 addicts (mostly users of opiates and amphetamine) who were admitted to a rehabilitation facility in 1988 and 1989. Five years later, they answered a questionnaire and were interviewed about depression and anxiety, personality disorders, overall quality of life, and social functioning. At that time, about 40% had been abstinent (no illicit drug use and no alcohol abuse) for at least six months.

After 15 years, 24% (30) were dead, a rate of 1.6% per year. Abstinence at the five-year interview was not correlated with death after 15 years, but overall functioning and severity of psychiatric symptoms were. The authors conclude that treating the psychiatric symptoms of drug addicts may save their lives even if they continue to take drugs.

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