Overall, heroin use is declining in the U.S., but it is hardly news worth celebrating due to the continuing toll the drug takes on individuals, families, and communities. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, nearly 70,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2020 in the U.S.1 Heroin is responsible for almost a third of those deaths—approximately 435 lives lost every week.2
However, overdose isn’t the only life-threatening concern people with a substance use disorder face. The lifespan of a heroin addict is affected by many factors and is difficult to predict.
What is Heroin?
Heroin is a naturally occurring opioid that is extracted from specific varieties of poppy plants. The “finished product” is either a white or brown powder or a “black tar,” which is hard and sticky and used for freebasing (smoking) instead of injecting or snorting.
The drug is highly addictive due to its effects on the brain, specifically areas that control pleasure and relieve anxiety. With continued use, the brain begins to crave the drug as its natural abilities to produce endorphins—“feel good” hormones—are interrupted.
Users quickly build a tolerance to heroin, needing more and more of the drug to get the same effects as they did during early use. A high tolerance leads to strong physical dependency and increases the risk of overdose, which factors into the lifespan of a heroin addict.
Withdrawal from heroin is mentally and physically uncomfortable, even painful. Heroin addicts feel sick and emotionally unbalanced when they go too long without a dose, making it almost impossible to stop using on their own.
Signs of Heroin Use
Signs that someone is using heroin include:
- Slow movements, as though their body is heavy
- Head nodding as if falling asleep
- Slowed breathing and heart rate
- Needle marks or “tracks” at injection sites
- Skin abscesses
People from every walk of life and income bracket can become heroin addicts. According to a study by JAMA,3 heroin use by women, Caucasians, and people with high incomes has increased. Find out how to identify the signs of heroin addiction in a loved one.
What Factors Affect the Lifespan of a Heroin Addict?
Death by overdose is the most severe risk associated with using heroin, but overdose is not the only concern or cause of death.
Intravenous drug use puts users at a greater risk for:
- Hepatitis B (HBV)
- Hepatitis C (HCV)
While doctors can treat these illnesses, heroin users are typically unlikely to seek medical help.
Increased Suicide Risk
According to the National Library of Medicine, heroin users are 14 times more likely than others to take their own lives, making the average lifespan of a heroin addict that much shorter.4 Heroin impacts mental health, relationships, employment, and finances, often leaving users feeling isolated, hopeless, and disenfranchised from society.
Effects on Overall Health
Heroin also causes death by attacking the body’s vital functions slowly over time. Chronic heroin users face multiple health problems such as:
- Collapsed veins
- Liver disease
- Kidney disease
- Skin infections
- Heart infections
- Pulmonary infections
- Brain damage
Additionally, heroin users are at a higher risk of dying from accidents. Diminished motor control and poor-decision making can result in falls, trips, and other accidental injuries.
How Long Do Heroin Addicts Live?
Using an addiction calculator5 makes it possible to estimate the lifespan of a heroin addict by factoring in the starting age of use and amounts used. For example, a person who injects heroin twice a day starting at the age of 18 can expect to live 38.6 years. That’s a loss of 1,440 minutes of life per dose taken. The calculator assumes that drug use is continuous for life and does not consider other health or lifestyle factors.
Poor self-care, using more than one substance, an absence of medical care, and co-occurring conditions can all decrease the lifespan of a heroin addict even further. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation,6 the greatest number of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. during 2019 occurred within the age range of 24- to 34-years old and totaled 13,309 people. The next largest group involved 35 to 44-year olds.
Live Longer with Help from Ocean Hills Recovery Inc.
No matter how severe addiction is, it’s never too late for recovery. Ocean Hills Recovery provides medical detox and drug treatment programs to help you break free from heroin addiction and enjoy every moment of your life. Contact us today to learn more about our approach to heroin treatment.
 The U.S. Opioid Epidemic | Council on Foreign Relations (cfr.org)
 Heroin Overdose Data | Drug Overdose | CDC Injury Center
 Changes in U.S. Lifetime Heroin Use and Heroin Use Disorder: Prevalence From the 2001-2002 to 2012-2013 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions | Addiction Medicine | JAMA Psychiatry | JAMA Network
 Suicide among heroin users: rates, risk factors and methods – PubMed (nih.gov)
 Addiction Calculator – How Much Life You Lose When You Use (omnicalculator.com)
 Opioid Overdose Deaths by Age Group | KFF
About the author:
Nicole earned her doctoral degree in Psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at California School of Professional Psychology. Her doctoral thesis was a grounded theory study exploring the role of alienation and connectedness in the life course of addiction. She specializes in treating addiction and trauma. She is certified in DBT and EMDR, two of the most highly regarded evidence-based methods in psychotherapy. Dr. Doss is a strong LGBT advocate and provides open and affirming support to her LGBT clients.
Dr. Doss’s earlier education included graduating cum laude from the University of California, Irvine in June of 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. While there, she received honors recognition by Psi Chi and Golden Key honor societies.
Nicole has been working with alcoholics and addicts in our California drug and alcohol rehab center as an advisor and counselor for many years. She is passionate about providing quality counseling and care to her clients. Her main focus is on integrating the 12 Step and disease models of addiction with experiential therapeutic theory. She is married to Greg; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.