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

Death Rate Rises For First Time In Years in United States
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:

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:

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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