Cleveland, OH,
11:04 AM

New Study Calculates Risk of Death From Firearms and Drug Overdoses in the United States

One out of roughly 100 American children will die from firearms if current death rates continue. One out of nearly 70 will die from overdoses.

One out of approximately 70 children in the United States will die from a drug overdose and one out of nearly 100 will die from firearms if current trends continue, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Medicine.

Dr. Ashwini SehgalThe lifetime risks vary depending on who you are and where you live. The lifetime risk of firearm death is highest among black boys: 1 out of every 40 will die from a gunshot. The lifetime risk of overdose death is highest in West Virginia, where 1 out of every 30 children will die from a drug overdose, based on data from 2018.

Dr. Ashwini Sehgal, a physician at MetroHealth Medical Center and a Professor of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, used official death certificate data to calculate the chance that an American child will die from a gunshot or a drug overdose over the course of a lifetime.

Sehgal calculated the lifetime risk of death from firearms and drug overdoses in the United States. The lifetime risk of death from firearms is about 1%, meaning that approximately 1 out of every 100 children will die from firearms if current death rates continue. The lifetime risk of death from drug overdoses is 1.5%, meaning that 1 out of every 70 children will die from overdoses.

News media and politicians frequently discuss the high toll of deaths from firearms and drug overdoses. They usually mention the numbers of deaths, citing figures like 40,000 firearm deaths last year, or death rates such as 20 overdose deaths per 100,000 population. But for most people, it's hard to grasp the real meaning of both the large absolute numbers and the small annual rates.

 “While absolute numbers of deaths and annual death rates describe mortality over a short period of time, lifetime risk tells us more about long-term consequences,” Sehgal said.

Sehgal was thinking about the study findings when he recently toured a new elementary school in his community in Ohio.

I had a hard time concentrating on the gleaming whiteboards, the new computers, or the cheerfully decorated walls,” he said. “I realized that one child on every floor of the school would likely die from firearms and another one from a drug overdose in the years ahead. If I were across the border in West Virginia, then one child per classroom will have their life ended by an overdose.”

Sehgal believes presenting information on lifetime risks may be a practical way to educate the public and policy makers about the impact of firearm and overdose deaths. Lifetime risk should be included in news stories and government reports and contrasted with lifetime risk of other causes of death and with figures from other countries. For example, the lifetime risk of dying from an overdose is similar to the lifetime risk of dying from colon cancer.

Moreover, firearm deaths in our country are six times more common than in Canada and 50 times more common than in the United Kingdom.

There are a number of things policymakers can do to reduce exposure to and the consequences of firearms and potentially lethal drugs. Health providers can also advocate for measures likely to reduce deaths. They can ask patients about the presence of firearms in the home, review safe storage practices, and screen for depression or a previous history of violence. They can also limit or avoid prescribing drugs with overdose potential and carefully monitor patients on such drugs.

Sehgal concluded that lifetime risk calculations are based on the assumption that future death rates will match current ones.

“But it does not have to be that way,” Sehgal said. “The big differences in firearm and overdose deaths by race, gender, state, and country, and the sizeable changes over time indicate that high levels of firearm and overdose deaths are not inevitable. Let’s take sensible steps now to help our children avoid the preventable tragedies of firearm and overdose deaths.”

About The MetroHealth System

Founded in 1837, MetroHealth is leading the way to a healthier you and a healthier community through service, teaching, discovery, and teamwork. Cuyahoga County’s public, safety-net hospital system, MetroHealth meets people where they are, providing care through four hospitals, four emergency departments, and more than 20 health centers and 40 additional sites. Each day, our 8,000 employees focus on providing our community with equitable health care–through patient-focused research, access to care, and support services–that seeks to eradicate health disparities rooted in systematic barriers. For more information, visit