Has Benzodiazepine Overdose Problem "Gone Under the Radar?"

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Prescriptions filled for benzodiazepines have doubled over the last two decades.
Prescriptions filled for benzodiazepines have doubled over the last two decades.

The overdose death rate related to benzodiazepines has increased more than four-fold since 1996, a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health has found. Researchers examined data from 1996 to 2013, finding that death rates in 1996 stood at 0.58 per 100,000 adults, while in 2013 they stood at 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults.

The average quantity of benzodiazepines prescriptions filled, more than doubled during the study period, which suggests a higher daily dose or increased days of treatment. Overdose deaths rates plateaued in 2010, though rates continued to rise though 2013 for those aged over 65, and for Black and Hispanic patients. Benzodiazepines accounted for 31% of the nearly 23,000 deaths from prescription overdoses in the US, in 2013.

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These finding widen the conversation surrounding prescription overdose deaths, thus far focused mostly on opioids, with the Food and Drug Administration recently announcing an action plan to combat the epidemic. Lead author of the new study, Marcus Bachhuber, MD, MS, said the benzodiazepine-related deaths have “gone under the radar”.

"This epidemic is almost entirely preventable, as the most common reason to use benzodiazepines is anxiety — which can be treated effectively and much more safely with talk therapy," said co-author Sean Hennessy, PharmD, PhD, at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine. The authors said emphases should be put on educating about the dangers of taking benzodiazepine in combination with opioid painkillers or alcohol.

The study was conducted by researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Montefiore Health System and Perelman. They used records from The Medical Expenditure Panel Survey and the The Multiple-cause-of-death data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to gather their findings. Using these sources they could gather a cross-sectional snapshot of family and individual prescription drug consumers and reports from physicians and coroners.

Reference

Bachhuber MA, et al. Increasing Benzodiazepine Prescriptions and Overdose Mortality in the United States, 1996–2013. Am J Public Health. 2016; doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2016.303061.

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