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A new report by Atlanta's Center for Disease Control (CDC) shows that overdose deaths for middle-aged women has been rising rapidly over the past few years, and their drug of choice appears to be prescription painkillers.
While overdose deaths for men have typically outnumbered deaths for women as far back as overdose statistics have been available, 40 per cent of overdose deaths in 2010 involved women and the numbers have been rising since. The increased number of women overdosing is linked to the boom in prescription painkiller use over the past few years. According to CDC statistics, female prescription drug overdose deaths have increased fivefold from 1999 to 2010 and outpace similar increasing among male drug deaths.
While overall number of drug deaths is still higher for men than women, the gap has narrowed dramatically in recent years. Part of the reason for this, the CDC suggests, is that women are more likely to be prescribed medication for chronic pain and the dosage tends to be higher than for men. As well, studies show that women are more likely than men to "doctor-shop" to obtain medication from several physicians at the same time. Another factor is the failure of physicians to recognize that drug abuse is something that can affect women as well as men and to be more alert to the possibility of prescription medication addiction.
And the addiction potential of prescription pain medication remains high. Medications such as Vicodin, Oxycontin, and Oxymorphone are already being diverted from their intended medical use for sale as recreational drugs with a high street value. The boom in painkiller prescriptions over the two decades seems linked to more aggressive advertising campaigns by pharmaceutical companies seeking to cash in on the rising popularity of pain medications. Despite warnings about overdose potential, the CDC believes that over 70 percent of overdose deaths from prescription pain medication are unintentional.
In examining drug overdose deaths, the CDC reports that the greatest number of deaths for women occurs between the ages of 45 to 64. For 2010 alone, deaths for women in this age range accounted for nearly half of the female total. According to CDC director, Dr. Thomas Frieden, women are dying at rates that have never been seen before. "These are dangerous medications and they should be reserved for situations like severe cancer pain," he said.
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