Prescription painkiller addiction has long been seen as mainly a man's problem, but a new analysis of federal data released Tuesday shows that in recent years the death rate has risen far faster among women.
Fatal overdoses from prescription pain pills increased fivefold among women from 1999 to 2010, the most recent year for which the federal government has final data. The rate among men tripled over the same period, according to the analysis, which was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More women die from drug overdoses than from cervical cancer or car accidents. Four times as many died over the last 10 years from drug overdoses than from homicides. And while the absolute number of overdose deaths is still higher for men, women are catching up.
The rising rate of overdoses among women is what CDC director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden called "a sleeper problem." Even medical professionals who work in the field expressed surprise, he said.
"It's a big problem among women," Frieden said. "It's underrecognized."
Experts offered medical theories for the rise. Women have smaller body mass than men, so the gap between a therapeutic dose and a dangerous dose is narrower. Some studies have found that women are more likely to have chronic pain. Other patterns in women are not well understood. For example, they are more likely to be given higher doses of painkillers, and more likely than men to use them for a long time.
The rate among women for all drug overdose deaths — not just those from painkillers — was highest for those ages 45 to 54, the CDC analysis found. In 2010, 15,323 women died of drug overdoses, compared with 23,006 men. Among men and women, the highest death rate was among Native Americans and whites.
NEW YORK TIMES