Importance Life expectancy has decreased in the US, driven largely by increases in drug poisoning, suicide, and alcohol-induced deaths. Assessing whether patterns of these causes differ is required to inform public health interventions.
Objective To compare patterns and trends in drug poisoning, suicide, and alcohol-induced death rates by geography and demographic characteristics.
Design, Setting, and Participants This serial cross-sectional study used national vital statistics data from the entire US population from January 1, 2000, to December 31, 2017, among US residents aged 20 to 64 years. Data were analyzed from January through August 2019.
Exposures Age, sex, race/ethnicity, county-level percentage of unemployment, rurality, and geography.
Main Outcomes and Measures Deaths were categorized as due to drug poisoning, suicide, or alcohol-induced causes based on underlying cause of death. Age-standardized incidence rates and annual percentage changes (APCs) in rates were estimated. Clusters of high-rate counties were identified with hot spot analysis. Excess deaths during 2001 to 2017 were estimated for each cause as the difference between the number of deaths observed and expected if rates had remained stable starting in 2000.
Results During 2000 to 2017, 1 446 177 drug poisoning, suicide, and alcohol-induced premature deaths occurred in the US, including 563 765 drug poisoning deaths (age-standardized rate: 17.6 per 100 000 person-years [PYs]), 517 679 suicides (age-standardized rate: 15.8 per 100 000 PYs), and 364 733 alcohol-induced deaths (age-standardized rate: 10.5 per 100 000 PYs), totaling 451 596 more deaths than expected based on 2000 rates. High drug poisoning death rates were clustered in the Northeast through Appalachia, yet rates of suicide and alcohol-induced deaths were highest in the West. Only suicide death rates were highest in rural areas. Drug poisoning death rates were highest among people aged 35 to 49 years (age-standardized rate: 23.7 per 100 000 PYs), whereas suicide and alcohol-induced death rates peaked among people aged 50 to 64 years (suicide age-standardized rate: 19.6 per 100 000 PYs; alcohol-induced age-standardized death rate: 26.8 per 100 000 PYs). Increases occurred over time across racial/ethnic groups, although trajectories and inflection years varied. Drug poisoning (2013-2017 APC, 15.0% [95% CI, 11-8%-18.3%] per year) and alcohol-induced death rates (2012-2017 APC, 4.1% [95% CI, 3.3%-4.9%] per year) have accelerated recently, while increases in suicide death rates have largely increased at a constant trajectory (2000-2017 APC, 1.8% [95% CI, 1.7%-1.9%] per year).
Conclusions and Relevance This cross-sectional study found that demographic characteristics and geographic patterns varied by cause of death, suggesting that increasing death rates from these causes were not concentrated in 1 group or region. Specialized interventions tailored for the underlying drivers of each cause of death are urgently needed.