The US death rate just rose for the first time in a decade for an alarming reason

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Death Rate Rises For First Time In Years in United States

The American death rate has risen for the first time in ten years.

According to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a greater portion of the population died in the United States last year than in any other year for a decade.

The cause? Deaths from drug overdoses (many of which are legal), suicide, and Alzheimer's disease.

This marks a sharp contrast from a decade-long trend toward lower death rates, a positive shift driven largely by improvements in health treatments and access to care.

In 2015, the death rate (adjusted for age to give us a more accurate picture) rose to 729.5 deaths per 100,000 people, an increase from last year's age-adjusted rate of 723.2, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

What opioids do to your health:

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The US death rate just rose for the first time in a decade for an alarming reason

Opioid painkillers capitalize on our body's natural pain-relief system. We all have a series of naturally produced keys ("ligands") and keyholes ("receptors") that fit together to switch on our brain's natural reward system — it's the reason we feel good when we eat a good meal or have sex, for example. But opioids mimic the natural keys in our brain — yes, we all have natural opioids! When they click in, we can feel an overwhelming sense of euphoria.

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Opioid painkillers can have effects similar to heroin and morphine, especially when taken in ways other than prescribed by a doctor.

When prescription painkillers act on our brain's pleasure and reward centers, they can make us feel good. More importantly, though, they can work to reinforce behavior, which in some people can trigger a repeated desire to use.

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You may also feel sleepy.

Opioids act on multiple brain regions, but when they go to work in the locus ceruleus, a brain region involved in alertness, they can make us sleepy. Why? The drugs essentially put the brakes on the production of a chemical called norepinephrine, which plays a role in arousal.

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Your skin may feel flushed and warm.

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You'll begin to feel their effects 10 to 90 minutes after use, depending on whether they're taken as directed or used in more dangerous ways.

Some drugmakers design versions of their medications to deter abuse. Extended-release forms of oxycodone, for example, are designed to release slowly when taken as directed. But crushing, snorting, or injecting the drugs can hasten their effects.

It can also be deadly. Between 2000 and 2014, nearly half a million Americans died from overdoses involving opioid painkillers and heroin, a report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found. The most commonly prescribed painkillers were involved in more overdose deaths than any other type of the drug.

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Your breathing will slow as well.

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Depending on the method used, the effect can last anywhere from four to 12 hours.

For severe pain, doctors typically prescribe opioid painkillers like morphine for a period of four to 12 hours, according to the Mayo Clinic. Because of their risks, it's important to take prescription painkillers only according to your physician's specific instructions.

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Overdosing can stop breathing and cause brain damage, coma, or even death.

2014 report from the American Academy of Neurology estimates that more than 100,000 Americans have died from prescribed opioids since the late 1990s. Those at highest risk include people between 35 and 54, the report found, and deaths for this age group have exceeded deaths from firearms and car crashes.

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Combining them with alcohol or other drugs — even when taken according to the directions — can be especially deadly.

Since they slow breathing, combining opioid painkillers with other drugs with similar effects can drastically raise the chances of accidental overdose and death.

Yet they're often prescribed together anyway, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Unfortunately, too many patients are still co-prescribed opioid pain relievers and benzodiazepines [tranquilizers]," the institute said. In 2011, 31% of prescription opioid-related overdose deaths involved these drugs.

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Abusing opioid painkillers has been linked with abusing similar drugs, like heroin.

A CDC report found that people who'd abused opioid painkillers were 40 times as likely to abuse heroin compared with people who'd never abused them. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says that close to half of young people surveyed in three recent studies who'd injected heroin said they'd abused prescription painkillers before they started using heroin.

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You may also develop a tolerance for the drugs so that you need more to get the same effect over time.

Tolerance to opioid painkillers happens when the brain cells with opioid receptors — the keyholes where the opioids fit — become less responsive to the opioid stimulation over time. Scientists think that this may play a powerful role in addiction.

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Suddenly stopping the drugs can result in withdrawal symptoms like shakiness, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Taking prescription painkillers for an extended period increases the likelihood that your brain will adapt to them by making less of its own natural opioids. So when you stop taking the drugs, you can feel pretty miserable. For most people, this is uncomfortable but temporary.

But in people who are vulnerable to addiction, it can be dangerous because it can spurn repeated use.

"From a clinical standpoint, opioid withdrawal is one of the most powerful factors driving opioid dependence and addictive behaviors," Yale psychiatrists Thomas Kosten and Tony George write in a 2002 paper in the Journal of Addiction Science & Clinical Practice.

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A bigger killer of Americans than heroin

In 2014, opioid painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin killed more Americans than heroin. According to the new report, the age-adjusted death rate from drug overdoses of all kinds was 15.2, an increase from the 2014 figure of 14.1.. Despite being perfectly legal with a doctor's prescription, opioid painkillers operate similarly to heroin in the brain and body — and they can be addictive.

In fact, many experts have said these drugs may open the door to later heroin use. A 2015 CDC report found that people who had abused opioid painkillers were 40 times as likely to abuse heroin as those who had not.

Nevertheless, the drugs are prescribed frequently. Health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for them in 2012, according ot the CDC. That's enough for every US adult to have a bottle of the pills.

"We know there are too many prescriptions being written for these drugs today that are not necessary, and our goal is really to eliminate those," Douglas Nemecek, the chief medical officer of behavioral health for US health insurer Cigna, told Business Insider. Cigna unveiled an ambitious plan last month that aims to curb prescriptions for opioid painkillers by 25%.

According to the new report, the age-adjusted drug overdose death rate for all types of drugs, not just opioid painkillers, was 15.2 for 2015, a rise from 14.1 in 2014.

These before and after mugshots show the true effects of heroin abuse:

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The US death rate just rose for the first time in a decade for an alarming reason
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Other disturbing factors behind the rise

Drug overdoses are not the only factor behind the rise in the US death rate. Suicide and Alzheimer's also fueled the increase.

A CDC report released in April found that more Americans are dying by suicide today than at any other point in the past three decades. The rate has been steadily on the rise since 1999. Suicide is among the leading causes of death for both adolescents and young adults, but it's rising among middle-aged Americans as well.

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