By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

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Early deaths because of chronic conditions including heart disease, cancer and HIV have decreased over the past decade among people under 44.

Those results are “something to celebrate,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, Ph.D., R.N., director of County Health Rankings and Roadmaps, which released its annual report on Wednesday. She attributed the decline to the ongoing work of health advocacy groups like the American Heart Association.

It was one of the few bright spots of the report. Otherwise, the report said that drug overdoses have led to a national increase in premature deaths, particularly among younger generations.

The largest increase of premature deaths came among 15- to 44-year-olds. Specifically, the drug epidemic was the leading cause of death among 25- to 44-year-olds.

The report did not break down what kind of drugs led to the deaths, “but we know that the opioid crisis has been contributing heavily” to the problem, said Willems Van Dijk.

While drug overdoses contributed to the early death rate among 15- to 24-year-olds, nearly three times as many people in that age group die because of vehicle crashes and firearm-related homicides or suicides.

The report considers deaths as premature if they occur before the age of 75.

Every year, County Health Rankings and Roadmaps compares counties within each state on more than 30 factors in four categories: health behaviors; access and quality of clinical care; social and economic factors; and physical environment.

The findings are then released in a joint report produced by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The data is used to inform state policies and programs and to allocate funds toward public health.

“The Rankings allow local leaders to clearly see and prioritize the challenges they face – whether it’s rising premature death rates or the growing drug overdose epidemic – so they can bring community leaders and residents together to find solutions,” said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, M.D., chief executive and president of RWJF.

This year’s report found that drug-related deaths increased across urban and rural communities but noted a surprise shift for large suburban counties. A decade ago, suburbs had the lowest rates of premature death from drug overdose. In 2015, large suburban metro counties had the highest.

This year’s report included a new measure on “disconnected youth,” or young people age 16-24 who are not in school or working. About 4.9 million youth – or about 1 out of 8 – fell into this category in 2015, according to the report.

Youth disconnection is more prevalent among American Indians, black and Hispanic youth, and in rural communities than in urban ones. Places with high levels of youth disconnection also have higher rates of unemployment, child poverty and teen births.

Willems Van Dijk said she hopes the report’s findings on youth disconnection will help start conversations in communities about how to create opportunities for youth and young adults.

“By calling it out and shining a spotlight on it, it gives communities an opportunity to say, ‘What can we do to reach out to those kids so they don’t flip into a hopeless situation and feel like there’s no future for them?’” she said. Avoiding that sense of hopelessness could prevent some of those youth from turning to drugs or other substances “to quell that ill feeling,” she said.

Child poverty and youth disconnection are often linked and early childhood investment, such as preschool and kindergarten programming and childcare subsidies, can help establish stability, the report said.