The number of middle-aged women overdosing on opioids and anti-depressants has increased dramatically in the past 18 years, according to a recently released study from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study found that from 1999 to 2017 the rate of these deaths in women age 50 to 54 increased by 350%. For women age 55 to 64 it was worse—nearly 500%.

Deaths from prescription opioids jumped significantly. They increased in every age group, and climbed the most—more than 1,000%—in women age 55 to 64.

Overall, the study evaluated data from the National Vital Statistics System for women age 30 to 64. For the full age range the death rate increased 260%.

“Attention has been focused on the young,” says Tricia Hudson-Matthew, director of the Center for Addiction Studies at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “But we’re seeing increasing numbers [of drug use and abuse] in people 45 and older.”

Women are overdosing on both legal and illicit drugs. The study examined deaths caused by antidepressants, benzodiazepines, cocaine, heroin, prescription opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

Overdoses attributed to antidepressants also climbed, the report found, with sharper increases in middle-aged women than in their younger counterparts. The death rate attributed to antidepressant overdose increased 300% among women age 55 to 59 and almost 400% in those age 60 to 64.

But it was the number of deaths from prescription opioids that jumped most significantly. Those numbers increased in every age group, and climbed the most—more than 1,000%—in women age 55 to 64. 

Prescription opioids are a gateway for addiction and drug abuse, and some of these deaths are occurring in women who have long struggled with addiction.

“We are going into the second decade of the opioid crisis,” says Dessa Bergen-Cico, an associate professor and coordinator of the Addiction Studies program at Syracuse University.

“It’s a chronic relapsing condition. Treatment is very difficult and success rates are pretty low,” she says. 

Problems with prescriptions

Yet it’s not just addicts who are dying from drug overdoses. “It could be somewhat newer users, or people taking multiple medications,” Bergen-Cico says. 

“Once you have different medicines on board you can take them too close together, or you don’t remember if you took them. A lot of things can go into it,” she says. 

Many medications can affect your thinking and memory. You might not recall if you took medicine eight hours earlier or 12 hours earlier, for example. Taking too much medication, or combining medications, can lead to respiratory failure. 

“It’s easy to overdose when you have multiple depressants in your system,” she says. “Most people don’t think it’s going to happen to them.”

What you can do

Bergen-Cico points out that as you get older, you’re more likely to have orthopedic surgery or other procedures where doctors prescribe opioids for pain management.

“There’s that sense of safety that if someone in the healthcare system is prescribing something, it’s in your best interest,” she says. 

“It’s easy to overdose when you have multiple depressants in your system.
Dessa Bergen-Cico
Addiction Studies program, Syracuse University

While that may be true, if you’re prescribed medication to control pain, your doctor should make you aware of the potential risks and the warning signs of addiction. If your doctor doesn’t bring it up, ask. 

The report points out that women of childbearing age are more likely to be informed about the risk and benefits of drugs than middle-aged women.

Don’t assume you’re immune to drug use or addiction because of your age.

“People think if they’re 45 or 50 it’s not going to happen to them,” Bergen-Cico says.

“They think, ‘I’m not a teenager,'” she says. “We know addiction touches every race, gender and economic status. We need to remember that it touches every age group, too.”

If you’re self-medicating to manage your emotions, seek professional help.

Hudson-Matthew says some people reach middle age without developing coping skills, and then they suffer a loss like the death of a parent and they aren’t able to manage.

They reach for the prescriptions in their medicine cabinets to numb their feelings. They may take more medication, or take it more frequently, while still believing they have everything under control. 

It’s important to be honest with yourself, Hudson-Matthew says. If you’re self-medicating to manage your emotions, seek professional help.

For people who are taking opioid pain medications, Bergen-Cico recommends having naloxone (Narcan or Avzio) on hand, and having family members trained in how to use it. “That helps in terms of reversal of an overdose,” she says.

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