Benzo Death Rates Among Women Skyrocket

By Paul Gaita 01/31/19

A new report also shows the number of benzodiazepine prescriptions has sharply risen over an 18-year timeframe.

a woman taking a benzo

New statistics suggest that the overdose death rates involving the prescription drugs known as benzodiazepines have risen dramatically over the past decade, and approach statistics for heroin and and synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths.

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that between 1999 and 2017, the number of women between the ages of 30 and 64 who died from a drug overdose involving benzodiazepines—a family of drugs used for anxiety—rose 830% during that time period.

The CDC also found that prescriptions for benzodiazepines rose by 67% during the approximate same time period.

Benzodiazepines, which include such medications as Xanax, Valium and Klonopin, can prove effective in treating conditions like anxiety or insomnia if taken on an intermittent basis over a period of a few weeks. But with long-term use, they also carry an increased risk for overdose if taken with opioids.

Their ability to calm or sedate the user through an increase in the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain can be dangerous if taken with drugs that slow breathing like opioids or even alcohol. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported in 2018 that 30% of opioid-related overdoses also involved benzodiazepines.

The overall impact of benzodiazepines on overdose mortality rates paints a more alarming picture when observed over the time period covered in the CDC's report. According to their research, overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines among women in the aforementioned target age group rose from 0.54 per 100,000 in 1997 to 5.02 per 100,000 in 2017—a jump of 830%. 

The number of benzodiazepine prescriptions also saw a startling increase during the study timeframe, rising from 8.1 million adults in the United States who filled a prescription for the medication in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013.

Prescriptions began to drop or level off after 2013, but overdose deaths maintained their steady climb; in 2016 alone, there were 10,685 overdose deaths attributed to the drug, while in 1999, the U.S. total was just 1,135.

Commentary in the February 2018 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that education about the dangers of the drug and alternatives should be paired with national efforts to fight the opioid crisis.

Informing doctors and patients alike about their dangers, and the effectiveness of alternative treatments for anxiety and insomnia, could help to bring the numbers reported by the CDC down.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.