Middle-Aged Australians Are Dying From Accidental Opioid Overdoses

Accidental opioid overdoses claim the lives of more middle-aged men than any other group, according to newly released data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Rates of opioid-induced deaths in Australia have been slowly rising over the past 20 years, increasing significantly in the past five. In that time, the age group of people dying has shifted from younger people to middle aged.

James Eynstone-Hinkins,  director of health and vital statistics at the ABS, puts this down to a shift from illicit opioids like heroin, towards pharmaceutical drugs such as codeine and oxycodone.

"Effectively, the median age for opioid drugs occurring from illicit drugs such as heroin is younger than that for the pharmaceutical drugs," he said.

Middle aged men are dying from accidental opioid overdoses more than any other group. Photo: Getty.

However, that doesn't mean heroin deaths were down; in fact, there were 438 heroin-induced deaths in 2018, the highest number of heroin induced deaths since 2000.

Men have consistently higher rates of opioid-induced deaths than women, being on average 2.3 times higher to die from the drug over the past two decades. Men were also more likely to misuse illicit drugs (including heroin) than women, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's 2017 National Drug Strategy Household Survey.

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Eynstone-Hinkins said it's difficult to draw links between opioid deaths in Australia and the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States, but said there were similarities in why people were becoming addicted to the drugs in the first place.

"The use of opioid drugs to manage chronic pain or manage conditions that lead to pain is obviously something that's important to people who are suffering," he said.

"It's the addiction to those painkillers that I think are something people are looking to manage, and obviously the strength of some of the opioid drugs as well."

Heart disease is still the number one cause of death in Australia. Photo: Getty.

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death for Australians overall, with dementia coming in second, but the ABS stats point to a decreasing gap between the top two.

Cardiovascular deaths have been steadily decreasing since 1968, while dementia deaths are on the rise, particularly for women, in part due to people living longer lives.

In fact, Eynstone-Hinkins said if these trends continue, dementia deaths could overtake heart disease deaths within a matter of years.

For young people aged 15 to 44, suicide remains the leading cause of death, a slight fall of around 2.5 percent from 2017. Men accounted for around three quarters (76.2 percent) of suicides.

suicide prevention
Suicide is the leading cause of death in young people. Photo: Getty.

Suicide Prevention Australia CEO Nieves Murray said the slight drop indicated that in "some sections of society", messages around supporting one another are beginning to get through.

Meanwhile, SANE Australia CEO Jack Heath called on suicide attempt survivors to play a bigger role in suicide prevention.

“If we are going to have any chance of reducing suicide deaths to zero, people who have survived a suicide attempt have a critical role to play in helping to design and improve the systems of support available for people at risk of suicide,” he said.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

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