A new kind of gender equality can only be seen as tragic and sad: Drug overdoses are soaring among women older than 30, with a giant spike in these deaths due to opioids.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that since 1999, drug overdose death rates “increased by approximately 200 percent among women aged 35–39 and 45–49 years, 350 percent among those aged 30–34 and 50–54 years, and nearly 500 percent among those aged 55–64 years.” Overall for women aged 30-64, the CDC says, the rate of opioid overdose fatalities increased by a whopping 492 percent from 1999 to 2017.
The new data show the malignancy of the opioid crisis, which claimed more than 70,000 American lives in just the last year — more men than women. The overdose death rate itself rose in one year alone by 10 percent, and federal authorities say such incidents, intentional or accidental and too often now involving the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, have become a leading killer of Americans 50 and younger.
Experts said they were startled by the skyrocketing overdose deaths among women, and they could not explain it based on existing research or evidence. They said public health resources must be targeted at women, too, to prevent and reduce their substance abuse and how it is taking an increasing toll on them.
Michael Lynch, medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, who was not involved in the CDC study, said the decade-long spread of the opioid crisis had to hit women hard, too. That’s because they have been prescribed the potent painkillers in excessive fashion, just as men have. But, he noted, that women’s spiking overdose deaths also may be rooted in another public health menace: suicide. He told NBC News:
Most likely there are hidden suicides here. It can be very difficult to tell…Sometimes there are clear indicators like suicide notes. And sometimes unfortunately, people have died, and we find a fatal amount or combination of drugs in their system, but we don’t know how or why they got there. I’m sure there’s a lot of overlap between misuse and unintentional overdose and those who intentionally overdose to kill themselves.
Indeed, other experts earlier had warned about increases in women ending their lives. The National Center for Health Statistics has found that suicide death rates between 2000 and 2016 increased 21 percent for boys and men, compared with 50 percent for girls and women.
According to the American Psychological Association, women say their stress levels have risen in recent years. And middle-aged women belonging to the sandwich generation are especially feeling the pressure of their many responsibilities at home and at work. ‘So, they may be taking care of children, of parents, have work demands and then more responsibilities,’ Kaslow says. There’s also been a rise in the last few decades in the number of single-parent households headed by women. That means more women trying to do everything alone, she says. ‘And so, there’s, sort of, stress everywhere,’ she says. ‘They may not have time to take care of themselves, to be kind to themselves, to get the social support they need.’
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by dangerous drugs, especially the thoughtless and excessive prescribing of potent and addictive opioid painkillers. Big Pharma, doctors, hospitals, insurers, and too many others in American health care should be ashamed of themselves because they have created a lethal scourge with opioids, opening the way for illicit and even more dangerous drug. And, despite claims to the contrary, the response by the administration and Congress has been too late and too little still, as the rising women’s overdose data show.
In case you missed it, the Washington Post also reported that the nation’s capital has become an epicenter for African-Americans dying in a lesser-known part of the opioid crisis:
Heroin laced with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl has killed thousands of … drug users in the past several years, driving a largely overlooked urban public-health crisis. Since 2014, the national rate of fatal drug overdoses has increased more than twice as fast among African Americans as among whites [the CDC says]. In this new explosion of deaths, the nation’s capital is ground zero. The District saw 279 people die of opioid overdoses last year, a figure that surpassed the city’s homicides and was greater than three times the number of opioid deaths in 2014. More than 70 percent of cases involved fentanyl or its analogues … and more than 80 percent of victims were black.
Even as the nation marshals more resources to battle the opioid crisis, Americans can’t stop their hard work to stamp out social inequities and injustices that also injure too many still. A key insight into the opioid crisis in rural and ex-urban areas has been economists’ work on “the disease of despair” — the hopelessness, impoverishment, isolation, and depression that afflicts white men, middle aged and older, and can help send them spiraling into substance abuse, overdoses, and suicide.
We’ve got major work to do to combat the silence and shame surrounding suicide. (If you or others you know are struggling with this, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Line, toll-free at 1-800-273-8255).
We also can’t ignore how racism and sexism put and keep down women and the young in America’s increasingly diverse society. They’re major “social determinants” of health. Sexism persists as a major problem in medicine. And, while there may be signs for optimism for women in national politics, the perils of “toxic masculinity” — for men and women, girls and boys — have become worrisome enough that psychologists have issued new warnings about them.
More could and should be said on these and other societal ills. But to paraphrase — geez — a Big Tobacco slogan that has become a part of the language: We haven’t come far enough, baby, and we have a long way to go to improve the health and well-being of American women and men.