This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a disturbing report about the nation’s current opioid crisis. It appears that the fastest growing number of fatal opioid overdoses is among women between the ages of 30 and 64. According to the report, the annual drug overdose death rate in general among women in this age group rose 260 percent between 1999 and 2017. However, the figure for opioid-related fatalities specifically was closer to 500 percent.
Most of these opioid-related deaths were due to synthetic products such as fentanyl, which the Drug Policy Alliance says are among the “least researched drugs” available. This is not surprising. Fentanyl is relatively cheap and quite powerful compared to other opioid medications. Other opiates that drove most of these grim statistics include street heroin (which is often “cut” with fentanyl) as well as benzodiazepines (“benzos”) such as Valium, used to treat anxiety disorders.
There is an aspect of this ongoing tragedy that is of particular concern to one addiction specialist. Dr. Harshal Kirane of Staten Island University Hospital spoke to CBS News noting that “Specific groups of Americans are exquisitely vulnerable to the catastrophic consequences of the opioid epidemic,” especially since women in the 30-64 demographic often find it difficult to access treatment programs because of financial barriers as well as family responsibilities.
The probability of dying from an
opioid overdose increases among older women, particularly prescription
painkillers. Mortality rates for women 55-60 who took prescription opiates went
up by over 1,000 during the time period in question.
The big question is, why? The authors wrote, “As women progress through life, individual experiences can change in the type of substance used or misused and in the experiences of pain that might result in an opioid prescription.” Another possible explanation is that hormones such as estrogen may increase sensitivity to a given substance.
The connection between hormonal imbalance and addiction has been the focus of a number of scientific studies. For example, a study published in January 2017, found that women are particularly vulnerable to the effects of certain drugs during their menstrual or estrous cycle when estrogen levels peak. The reason is that estrogen has a tendency to open up the brain’s dopamine channels. Other explanations may be depression and anxiety disorders, which are more common among women 45 and older, and being trapped in abusive relationships. Women also tend to become addicted faster after they start using a given substance – and withdrawal can be more difficult.
The good news is that such research suggests that contraceptive pills or other adjustments may be effective in helping fight female addiction. The CDC notes that a “multifaceted approach” may be required, using “gender-responsive” methods of addiction treatments.
Statistically, men are still more likely to die of drug overdoses in general. Nonetheless, the CDC report points out that the ongoing battle against opioid abuse has a gender-specific aspect – and efforts to stem the tide of opioid-related deaths have a very long way to go.