Death by drug overdose is higher than it’s ever been in the United States. It has surpassed the number of deaths by HIV at its 1995 peak, death by car crash at its 1972 peak, and death by guns at its 1993 peak. In fact, in just two years, more Americans died from opiate addiction than in the Vietnam War. The following statistics help emphasize the magnitude of this epidemic:
- An estimated 2 million Americans are dependent on opiates
- In 2015, opioids and heroin accounted for 63% of the 52,404 lethal drug overdoses in the U.S.
- Early data shows that 59,000 to 65,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2016 (up 19% from 2015)
- 144 people die from drug overdose in the US every day (91 of them are opiate-related deaths)
- Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50
With numbers this high (and rising), it makes sense to focus on the fatal results of opiate abuse. But the non-fatal health effects of heroin and opiate addiction are often left out of the conversation, despite the fact that these health issues significantly affect quality of life for addicts and drug abusers even long after they stop using drugs.
Long-term health effects of heroin and opiate addiction
Heroin and other opiates cause significant harmful changes in the body, and even for those who manage to outlive their drug use, the damage remains. Take a look below at some of the long-term health effects of heroin and opiate addiction.
Heroin in particular suppresses the brain’s production of norepinephrine, an
organic chemical that functions as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. In the brain, norepinephrine is involved in the memory circuit. As the consumption of heroin suppresses the production of this vital chemical, it interrupts the memory circuit, decreasing the brain’s capacity to receive, recall, and retain information. Long-term abstinence from heroin can restore these functions, though not always completely.
Opiate abuse often results in diminished sex drive and impairs sexual behavior. Progressively more severe opiate addicts develop hypogonadism (diminished functional activity in the testes or ovaries), a condition that results in erectile dysfunction, menstrual irregularities, decreased libido, infertility, anxiety, and depression. Heroin impairs the brain systems that are activated during orgasm, making it impossible to achieve climax. Although stopping the use of heroin or opiates often restores sexual function, long-term abuse can impair it permanently.
The use of heroin and opioids causes what’s called “depressed respiration,” or breathing that is slow, shallow, or irregular. This results in less oxygen to the body and reduced organ functioning. Additionally, some of the additives found in the drugs clog the small blood vessels leading to the organs, resulting in infection or tissue death in the vital organs.
Chronic use of opiates often causes cognitive impairment to such a significant degree that it results in the development of dementia. In many cases, this impairment can be improved by stopping the drug use, but some of the brain damage may be permanent. Additionally, the nutritional deficiencies common in addicts put them at risk for developing dementia. Another significant finds in recent research is the link between depression and dementia. Although no conclusive evidence has been found as to why the two conditions are linked, these three theories continue to circulate:
- Depression may be an early sign of dementia
- Depression may damage the brain (by way of excess cortisol) and lead to dementia
- Depression may alter the brain and increase the risk of dementia
Research has shown that brain damage in heroin and methadone abusers is strikingly similar to damage found in the brains of those with early Alzheimer’s disease. The common areas of the brain affected by both Alzheimer’s and heroin/methadone use are those involved with learning, memory, and emotional wellbeing.
The importance of dual diagnosis treatment for opiate & drug addiction
The sooner a drug addict permanently ceases use of the drug, the higher the chance of avoiding death and long-term damage to the brain and body. But detox alone is not enough. Studies show that 70-90% of patients who receive only brief medical treatment for detox alone will relapse and risk fatal overdose. Part of the reason for this is that detox does not address the underlying issues driving the drug addiction.
Drug abuse and mental disorders go hand-in-hand, and only when they are addressed concurrently is lasting recovery possible. Drug abuse often triggers or exacerbates mental health disorders such as anxiety, and depression, schizophrenia. Conversely, many people with mental disorders turn to drugs to self-medicate, leading to a cycle of addiction that is impossible to beat without addressing both conditions.
The Crosby Clinic in San Diego Specializes in Dual Diagnosis Opioid Addiction Treatment
With the rapid rise of drug overdose deaths and the long-term health consequences of drug addiction, dual diagnosis treatment is more important than ever before. At the Crosby Clinic’s dual diagnosis treatment facility in San Diego, we use advanced state-of-the-art technology to provide effective diagnosis, create accurate treatment plans, and measure the progress of every individual in our care. We specialize in the treatment of co-occurring disorders such as PTSD, anxiety, panic disorder, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and more.
For more information on our programs, or to discuss how we can help you or a loved one, please contact us today at 760-751-1234 or via the contact form on our website.
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