Why The Opioid Epidemic Affects Women More Than Men

By Kelly Burch 12/21/17

Opioid overdose death rates have increased 400% among women in recent years, compared to a 265% rise among men.

Single male figure surrounded by female figures

Opioid overdose rates have risen much faster among women than men, underscoring gender-based disparities in health and unequal access to care that can leave American women vulnerable. 

“The outsized impact of opioids on women signals a much larger problem of poorer health and poorer access to care that make women more susceptible to addiction and, once addicted, more likely to die as a result,” Ken Sagynbekov, a health economist with The Milken Institute, wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times

Sagynbekov points out that opioid overdose death rates have increased 400% among women in recent years, compared to a 265% rise among men. Sagynbekov, who analyzed gender-based health disparities, found that the disparity between overdose rates among men and women was greatest in states that had the highest rates of opioid prescribing. 

For example, Alabama had the largest disparity between health outcomes for men and women, and it was also the state with the highest rate of opioid prescriptions, with 125 opioid prescriptions written for every 100 residents in 2015. 

“The correlation is most striking when examining both the overall population and whites specifically, the group hit hardest by the opioid crisis,” Sagynbekov writes. 

Sagynbekov points out that women’s health issues often contribute to poorer outcomes for children and families. The rising rate of infants born dependent on opioids is one way that gender disparities around addiction are affecting the next generation, he writes, noting that this is “a trend that will exact a price in the form of higher medical costs and social burdens for decades to come.”

Sagynbekov argues that women often receive an opioid dose that is too high, given that they generally have lower body weights. They are also likely to be given longer-lasting doses of opioids, which increases the risk of becoming addicted. Because women experience certain diseases like diabetes, heart problems and mental health issues at higher rates than men, doctors must be able to treat them effectively, Sagynbekov writes. 

“The best remedy for women is also the most difficult to achieve: We must improve the overall quality of healthcare in states where the disparities are greatest, which are also the places where overall health quality is poorest for both sexes,” he writes. 

Sagynbekov calls for pushing back against cuts to healthcare, which he says will further impact women’s access to care. 

“The long-term consequences of ignoring the gender gap in health should frighten us more than political tempests,” he writes. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.