As America continues to combat its opioid epidemic, the rate of deaths from drug overdoses among women has soared in recent years, according to new data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
From 1999 to 2017, the drug overdose death rate among women 30 to 64 years old climbed more than 260%, according to the report published Thursday.
In that time, drug overdose deaths involving antidepressants, cocaine, heroin, prescription opioids, synthetic opioids and benzodiazepines such as such as Xanax and Valium all increased, the report said.
"Overdose deaths continue to be unacceptably high, and targeted efforts are needed to reduce the number of deaths in this evolving epidemic among middle-aged women," the researchers wrote.
The report involved nationwide mortality data on people living in the United States between 1999 and 2017. The data came from the National Vital Statistics System, which is based on information from death certificates.
The researchers took a close look at overdose death rates among women ages 30 to 64 overall and then by drug type: antidepressants, benzodiazepines, cocaine, heroin, prescription opioids and synthetic opioids, excluding methadone.
Among women in that age group, the drug overdose death rate increased from 6.7 deaths per 100,000 people, or 4,314 deaths total, in 1999 to 24.3 per 100,000, or 18,110 deaths total, in 2017.
The rise in deaths also varied by age and drug categories in the data.
From 1999 to 2017, drug overdose death rates increased about 200% among women ages 35 to 39 and 45 to 49; 350% among those 30 to 34 and 50 to 54; and nearly 500% among those 55 to 64, the researchers found.
The drug overdose death rates also increased for all drug categories, with notable surges in rates of deaths involving synthetic opioids, at 1,643%; heroin, at 915%; and benzodiazepines, at 830%, the researchers found. The rate of drug overdose deaths involving any opioid increased 492%.
The report had some limitations, including that some deaths could have involved more than one substance. Also, changes over time in testing or reporting of certain drugs could have influenced the data.
A report published last year by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics found that, overall, the synthetic opioid fentanyl was the most frequently mentioned drug in overdose death data in 2016 that included both men and women.
That report showed that the rate of drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased about 113% per year, on average, from 2013 through 2016.
Men may be more likely than women to use almost all types of illicit drugs, but women are just as likely as men to develop a substance use disorder, and women may be more susceptible to craving and relapse -- key phases of the addiction cycle, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
So while the size of the rise in drug overdose deaths among women may come as a shock, the fact that women are being affected in America's drug epidemic should not be as surprising, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, who was not involved in the new CDC report.
As a country, "we've been ignoring this for a while," Benjamin said.
Particularly when it comes to the opioid epidemic, "the stereotype is a man who's addicted to drugs who's ODing on the street, and we know that that stereotype is clearly not complete. It's inaccurate," he said. "Women's part of the issue is just being not portrayed and not understood by most people."
There are some possible ways to reduce the rising number of drug overdose deaths in the opioid epidemic plaguing the United States, but they can be challenging, Benjamin said.
"Part of the solution is for people to become more aware of this and for people who are prescribing medications to do a much better job of -- particularly when prescribing for women -- talking about the risks and the relative risk of addiction," he said. "You want to adequately treat people [for pain], but you want to make sure that people don't think these drugs are safer than they are."