At my alcoholic worst, surrounded by half-empty bottles, I sometimes wondered how I’d die. It’d occasionally flash through my mind, but it flashed often enough for me to know my drinking was going to kill me. I also knew I probably wouldn’t die early—nothing swift, tragic or accidental. No, with my luck, life wasn’t going to be short. I also wasn’t convinced it’d be entirely from alcohol. According to a recent Daily Mail article, researchers have worked to eliminate some of the guesswork for alcoholics and addicts. The result is a grim yet fascinating “tool” that encourages people to submit their age, gender, and location. Seconds later, they’ll learn what overdose they’re likely to die from.
What’s in a Number?
Project Know, which provides resources and education around drug and alcohol treatment, built their overdose calculator on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data. Collected between 1999 and 2013, the data paints a disturbing portrait of America’s drug and alcohol abuse by demographics and geography. Setting the data aside for a second, the very concept of a mortality calculator is a shrewd one, but it makes a stark point. It assumes that if you’re using the calculator, you’re going to die of an overdose at some point down the road. It’s just telling you the likely when, how and why that’s probably going to happen. It’s an effective message, sure, but it sort of reminds me of when movie studios create fake websites for viral marketing purposes, like LexCorp or J.J. Abrams’ Slusho. They’re so bold-faced in their approach that it’s hard not to take them literally or seriously.
Clean and sober, I decided to tempt fate and give the calculator a whirl. What was the worst that could happen? After selecting the “35-44” age group (which, by the way, is as depressing to me as when I have to thumb through miles of birth years on an iPhone), choosing “male,” and saying I live in Ohio, I was rewarded with the following: I was going to die of a heroin overdose. “Males aged 35-55 living in Ohio are most likely to overdose on heroin,” Project Know’s calculator told me. It reasoned that in my state, “there were 239 accidental overdoses caused by heroin in 2013.”
Like a good alcoholic, I immediately scoffed at the tool and how little it understood me. I wasn’t a statistic. Or was I? I’m not going to lie: I sat there for a bit as I pondered the possibility. It became more unsettling as the seconds passed. So, I imagined that I was back in Phoenix, where I’d lived not long ago. “Arizona,” I selected; “Alcohol,” the calculator confirmed.
There we go. I had become a full-blown alcoholic in Phoenix. At first, I was skeptical. Now, I was downright terrified of what the future might hold.
Middle-Aged Men: The Real Victims
The American Society of Addiction Medicine confirms the CDC’s depressing findings: more than ever before in our nation’s history, men are increasingly falling victim to drug addiction. Drug overdoses are the single leading cause of accidental death in the US—47,055 in 2014, to be exact. Worse, prescription pain relievers—Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin—account for over half that number, followed closely by heroin, according to the ASAM. Even more staggering is the fact that opioid overdoses are up four times across the board since just 2008. I’m no math major, but that’s a terrifying trend.
By all accounts, Americans between the ages of 45 and 54 are 170% more likely to die of an opioid overdose—painkiller or heroin—than someone between the ages of 15 and 24. Read that again. 170%. The research tells a story that’s as eye-opening as it is contrary to the headlines I typically see every day. Perhaps less surprising, to me, is that this same age bracket had the most alcohol-related overdoses in 2014. Still, the information about middle-aged Americans dovetails with a 2015 New York Times piece. The conclusion was that substance abuse was killing middle-aged Americans at a greater rate than heart disease and diabetes. For the first time, heroin and prescription painkillers were to blame. To me, this is the black sun around which all of the other facts orbit, and the most startling statistic of all. The opioid overdose epidemic among white, affluent suburban kids may get all the press, but the numbers show something else altogether: if you’re in the 45-54 age group, you’re facing the highest number of overdose deaths above every other demographic.
What Does It All Add up To?
“Fun” isn’t the right word for Project Know’s calculator, but it’s not far off. It’s honestly little more than a novel yet effective way to present alarming data. The states with the most drug overdose deaths are the District of Columbia, Wyoming and Alaska, with those three states also having the highest number of alcohol-related overdoses. A series of infographics at Project Know map out—literally—the alcohol and drug overdose patterns by state, which is a fascinating way to see how substance abuse knows no bounds.
Drug and alcohol deaths cross every conceivable border—age, race, income, location—and tools like the Project Know calculator are exceedingly effective in driving that point home. Still, if you’re an alcoholic or addict, it doesn’t matter how the data is crunched. The numbers are always stacked against you.
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