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Rate of painkiller overdose deaths rising faster for women

NEW YORK — 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.

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More women die from overdoses than from cervical cancer or car accidents. Four times as many died over the last decade 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 Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the director of the CDC, 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.”

Specialists offered medical theories for the rise. Women have smaller body mass, 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.

Women addicts interviewed for this report believe that it had to do with the changing nature of society. The rise of the single-parent household has thrust immense responsibility on women, who are both the primary breadwinner and parent. Some craved the numbness that drugs bring as a response to feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities. Others said highs brought feelings of prettiness, strength, and productiveness.

Among men and women, the highest death rate was among Native Americans and whites.

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