Massive Rise in Drug Overdose Deaths Driven by Opioids

Richard Franki

February 02, 2023

The drug overdose death rate in the United States climbed 376% from 2001 to 2021, with much of that increase occurring in the last 2 years, according to the National Center for Heath Statistics.

The 376% represents the change in age-adjusted overdose deaths per 100,000 population, which went from 6.9 in 2001 to 32.4 in 2021, as the total number of deaths rose from 19,394 to 106,699 (450%) over that time period, the NCHS said in a recent data brief. That total made 2021 the first year ever with more than 100,000 overdose deaths.


Since the age-adjusted rate stood at 21.6 per 100,000 in 2019, that means 42% of the total increase over 20 years actually occurred in 2020 and 2021. The number of deaths increased by about 36,000 over those 2 years, accounting for 41% of the total annual increase from 2001 to 2021, based on data from the National Vital Statistics System mortality files.

The overdose death rate was significantly higher for males than females for all of the years from 2001 to 2021, with males seeing an increase from 9.0 to 45.1 per 100,000 and females going from 4.6 to 19.6 deaths per 100,000. In the single year from 2020 to 2021, the age-adjusted rate was up by 14% for males and 15% for females, the mortality-file data show.

Analysis by age showed an even larger effect in some groups from 2020 to 2021. Drug overdose deaths jumped 28% among adults aged 65 years and older, more than any other group, and by 21% in those aged 55-64 years, according to the NCHS.

The only age group for which deaths didn't increase significantly from 2020 to 2021 was 15- to 24-year-olds, whose rate rose by just 3%. The age group with the highest rate in both 2020 and 2021, however, was the 35- to 44-year-olds: 53.9 and 62.0 overdose deaths per 100,000, respectively, for an increase of 15%, the NCHS said in the report.

The drugs now involved in overdose deaths are most often opioids, a change from 2001. That year, opioids were involved in 49% of all overdose deaths, but by 2021 that share had increased to 75%. The trend for opioid-related deaths almost matches that of overall deaths over the 20-year span, and the significantly increasing trend that began for all overdose deaths in 2013 closely follows that of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and tramadol, the report shows.

Overdose deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, amphetamine, and methylphenidate also show similar increases. The cocaine-related death rate rose 22% from 2020 to 2021 and is up by 421% since 2012, while the corresponding increases for psychostimulant deaths were 33% and 2,400%, the NCHS said.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.