CDC Report Warns of Dramatic Rise in Drug Overdose Death Among Women

Drug overdose deaths are on the rise in the United States, which may not be too surprising when you consider the prevalence of prescription painkillers over the past several years.  Indeed, opioid narcotics like hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxycodone (often under the brand names Vicodin, Dilaudid, and Percocet, respectively) are more common these days.  It might also not come as much of a surprise that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider drug abuse to be more common among men than women. 

What might come as a surprise, though, is that it is drug abuse among women is on the rise.  More specifically, the demographic which has seen the biggest rise in opioid painkiller abuse—and death—is middle-aged women.  As a matter of fact, the CDC advises that for every female death related to opioid drugs, there are probably at least 30 more who will end up in the emergency room for drug abuse related issues. 

It would also not be surprising to hear that illegal opioid abuse is on the rise, particularly with fentanyl and heroin. But, again, what could be surprising is that the overall death rate for these drugs, among middle-aged women, has jumped 260 percent between 1999 and 2017.  More importantly, perhaps, the biggest increase appears to be with use of synthetic opioids.  Actually, the death rate from fentanyl skyrocketed 1,643 percent during the same period; heroin jumped up 915 percent.

While it is easy to determine whether drug-related deaths are escalating—and they are—what is much more difficult to discern is the reason why.  It is somewhat common—if not clinical—knowledge that women who experience domestic violence or other trauma can sometimes turn to substance abuse, but that does not necessarily mean opioid painkillers.  And these traumatic life experiences can range from divorce to the loss of a child, which can also be coupled with anxiety or depression related to work, relationships, life goals, money, and other stressors.  

In addition, research also shows that female sex hormones can sometimes make women more sensitive to the effects of some drugs. This means women who do use often need smaller amounts of a drug than men would, and women typically use them in a shorter time frame before developing the regular cravings that can lead to addiction.  

All in all, the CDC report certainly highlights a greater need to fortify efforts aimed specifically at decreasing drug-related death rates among the most vulnerable populations, which now includes middle-aged women.  Strategies, of course, could be recommending counseling to deal with depression or anxiety as well as medical and lifestyle prescriptions to help regulate hormonal and nutritional shifts. 

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