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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Pittsburgh Performs First Detailed Analysis of PA’s Rapid Rise in Drug Overdoses

Drug-overdose deaths in Pennsylvania increased 14-fold in the last 35 years, with rates climbing especially fast in relatively young white women, according to the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.


[Photo: Dr. Jeanine M. Buchanich]

The analysis is the first to examine in detail accidental overdose deaths over time in Pennsylvania and suggests potential targets for public health intervention and law enforcement efforts. It is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“Pitt Public Health has the most comprehensive mortality database in the nation, which can be easily cross-referenced with U.S. Census data to shed light on myriad public health issues,” said co-author Donald. S. Burke, M.D., Pittsburgh dean and UPMC-Jonas Salk Chair of Global Health. “Our latest analysis reveals that drug overdoses are the biggest problem facing our nation in terms of years of life lost—more than car crashes, or cancer, or HIV—and we as a society need to work together  to solve it.”

Pennsylvania ranks in the top 20 states for overdose mortality, which is the leading cause of accidental death in the U.S.

Using the Mortality and Population Data System, a repository and retrieval system for detailed death data from the National Center for Health Statistics housed at Pittsburgh, the research team broke down overdose deaths in Pennsylvania from 1979 to 2014 by sex, age and race. The team started with 1979 because changes in reporting cause of death make it impossible to make comparisons with previous years. 2014 is the most recent year for which data are available.

Accidental overdose rates are higher in men than in women; however, women saw a more dramatic increase, particularly from 2010 to 2014. High overdose death rates for women also spanned a longer age range of 25 to 54 for white women and 35 to 64 for black women, compared to the U.S. average peak between ages 45 to 54.

“This seems to indicate a more prolonged period of concern for overdoses in Pennsylvania women,” said lead author Lauren C. Balmert, a graduate student researcher in Pittsburgh’s Department of Biostatistics. “Previous research has shown that women are more prone to having accelerated progression from their first drug use to substance abuse and often enter into treatment programs with more severe dependence than men.”

“While our analysis examined accidental poisoning deaths in Pennsylvania, many of these findings are applicable to other states as well,” said co-author Dr. Jeanine M. Buchanich, deputy director of Pittsburgh’s Center for Occupational Biostatistics and Epidemiology. “Our county-level findings provide possible avenues for targeting interventions to areas and people with the highest drug overdose mortality. It also points to issues on the horizon that public health officials could prepare for— such as overdoses in younger age groups and rapid overdose increases in areas centered on smaller cities with fewer resources.”

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