In early February, movie fans lost another great talent to heroin. Philip Seymour Hoffman, who starred as Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, died at age 46 of an apparent heroin overdose.
Hoffman’s death is a sad reminder of some of the harsh realities of addiction—a disease that 17.7 million Americans struggle with. His death, coming about 6 months after Cory Monteith’s overdose on heroin and alcohol, also emphasizes that addiction can affect everyone—young and old, rich and poor.
Hoffman’s overdose death is tragic, and we all feel the loss. But we must remember that many overdose deaths don’t make the national news. Every day in America, 105 people die from drug overdose.
Hoffman’s history with drug abuse also reminds us that addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease. That means it can last for a long time and comes back over and over. Having gotten treatment in his early 20s, Hoffman is reported to have stayed away from drugs for over 20 years. He relapsed recently after developing a prescription drug problem that led to heroin use. He sought treatment for his addiction in May 2013.
Drugs change the brain, and even decades of not using drugs may not reverse those changes.
Hoffman’s case also reminds us that, as with any other chronic disease (such as heart disease or diabetes), treatment must often be repeated or may need to be ongoing. In the case of opioid addiction (which includes heroin and prescription painkillers), there are effective medications that can help.
We do not yet know the details of Hoffman’s relapse or what his treatment last year consisted of. We do know, though, that his path from prescription drug use to heroin is more and more common. People who shift from abusing prescription opioids to heroin may be driving the current rise in heroin use being seen across the country, especially in young people.
Here at NIDA, we are committed to continuing to research effective treatments for addiction. To learn more about drug abuse treatment for young people, see our new publication, Principles of Adolescent Substance Use Disorder Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.