33-year study emphasizes lethal consequences of heroin addiction

After following a cohort of heroin addicts for more than 33 years, researchers from the UCLA Drug Abuse Research Center found that nearly half of the original group of 581 men first interviewed in 1964 had died by 1997, when they would have been between 50 and 60 years of age. The study also found that about 40 percent of the 242 survivors reported past year heroin use and many reported other illicit drug use.

The study is published in the May 14, 2001, issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. These findings highlight the drastic effects of heroin addiction, says Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., director, National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). In addition to risking an early death, this long-term study shows that heroin users often suffer from hepatitis, HIV, sexually transmitted diseases and other health problems, and many have criminal justice histories. The study emphasizes the pervasive public health and public safety consequences of heroin use and the need for comprehensive approaches to deal with it.

The UCLA researchers, led by Dr. Yih-Ing Hser, followed 581 male heroin addicts who had been admitted to the California Civil Addict Program (CAP) during the years 1962 through 1964. CAP was a compulsory drug treatment program for heroin-dependent criminal offenders committed under court order. The average age of participants upon admission to CAP was 25.4 years. More than 60 percent had started using heroin before the age of 20.

The researchers conducted three face-to-face interviews with participants at 10-year intervals: the first set of interviews was conducted in 1974-1975, the second set in 1985-1986 and the third set in 1996-1997. The men were an average of 57.4 years old in 1996-1997. Of the 242 subjects interviewed at that time, 20.7 percent tested positive for opiates, 66.9 percent reported current tobacco use, 22.1 percent drank alcohol every day, and many reported other illicit drug use in the past year (marijuana, 35.5 percen

Contact: Blair Gately
NIH/National Institute on Drug Abuse

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