(HealthDay News) — The demographics of heroin users have shifted substantially in the past 50 years, according to a study published online May 28 in JAMA Psychiatry.

Theodore J. Cicero, PhD, from Washington University in St. Louis, and colleagues analyzed the results of an ongoing study utilizing structured, self-administered surveys. The authors gathered retrospective data on past drug use among 2,797 patients entering substance abuse treatment programs across the country who were diagnosed with heroin use/dependence. Data were also reviewed from unstructured qualitative interviews from a subset of 54 patients who completed the structured interview.

The researchers found that participants who began using heroin in the 1960s were predominantly young men (82.8%; mean age, 16.5 years). Heroin was their first opioid of abuse (80%). In contrast, more recent users were older (mean age, 22.9 years) men and women living in less urban areas (75.2%) who were introduced to opioids through prescription drugs (75.0%). In those initiating use prior to the 1980s, whites and nonwhites were equally represented. However, nearly 90% of respondents who began use in the last decade were white. Heroin was selected because of its high and because it was more readily accessible and much less expensive than prescription opioids.

“Our data show that the demographic composition of heroin users entering treatment has shifted over the last 50 years,” the authors write.

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