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Pitt Study Finds Birth Year Helps Predict Drug Overdose Risk

Sarah Boden
Kevin Kelly and wife Kelly, mayor of Turtle Creek, at the "Survivors and Revivers" event. Kevin Kelly was saved twice with naloxone after overdosing from opioid use.

The year a person is born strongly predicts how likely they are to fatally overdose, according to a new study from University of Pittsburgh.

Researchers looked at data from 661,565 drug overdose death reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1979 to 2017. They found that since World War II, the more recent a person’s birth year, the more likely they are to die from drug use.

“If you are born after 1945, then your risk of overdose death increases exponentially from one birth year to the next,” said lead author Hawre Jalal, whose research expertise includes mathematical modeling on the opioid epidemic.

Also, the more recent the birth year, the younger someone is likely to be if they die. For example, a 25-year-old is more likely to fatally overdose today, than his or her parents were at the same age.

“Those patterns are too regular to be random. There is some driving force, there’s some reason why drug overdoses are transmitting from one birth year to the next,” said Jalal.

Jalal, an assistant professor at Pitt, said that while drug overdoses are increasing, it does not explain why younger people are so dramatically affected. He noted while age is often examined in epidemiological research, birth years are an understudied topic.

“We have to unravel those causes. And we have to understand why this pattern is happening to be able to curb the overdose epidemic,” he said.

The research was published last week in the journal “Nature Medicine.”

WESA receives funding from Pitt.