February 28, 2016
While the surging rate of opioid-related deaths has broken hearts across the country and rightly commanded media attention, heroin is not the only drug contributing to a rise in overdoses. A study published this month in the American Journal of Public Health found that the rate of fatal overdoses of a class of drug used in antidepressant medications has more than quintupled in 17 years.
The drugs in question are called benzodiazepines, and they can be used as sedatives or as a treatment for anxiety, mood disorders, seizures, and insomnia. Xanax, Valium, and Ativan are some of the most common examples.
Three researchers from the Montefiore Medical Center in New York and one from the University of Pennsylvania examined data from the Centers for Disease Control, tracking prescriptions and deaths related to the drugs from 1996 to 2013.
In that period, the number of adults filling out prescriptions for these drugs rose from 8.1 million to 13.5 million. But the total quantity of drugs ordered rose at a faster rate than the number of prescribers, and the rate of overdoses rose faster still.
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The overdose death rate for benzodiazepines shot up more than five-fold, from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults to 3.07 deaths per 100,000. The total quantity of drugs ordered more than tripled, suggesting that patients were taking higher doses or using their medications for longer periods.
To put things in perspective: in 2013, almost 7,000 people in the U.S. died from prescription benzodiazepine overdoses, while over 8,200 people died that year from heroin overdoses, according to the CDC.
It's no coincidence that benzodiazepine overdoses rose at the same time that the opioid crisis was escalating. Around three out of four benzodiazepine deaths also involve opioids, as it's common to have prescriptions for both kinds of drugs at the same time. Researchers believe that the increased death rate could be due to people dangerously mixing benzodiazepine medications with painkillers or alcohol.
One hopeful observation from the study is that the rate of benzodiazepine deaths appeared to plateau in 2010, around the same time that the medical community started to push for more safeguards against painkiller abuse. However, that rate did not stop growing for people who were black, Hispanic, or above the age of 64.
What's unknown is how many overdoses were linked to legal prescriptions, as opposed to unauthorized uses. The report also cautioned that its numbers are likely underestimates of the real overdose rate, because information on the specific drugs involved in overdose deaths was missing in around one out of five cases examined in the data.
Find the full study here.