Behind the Rise in Prescription Drug Overdoses

limp hand holding spilled bottle of pills
limp hand holding spilled bottle of pills
Between 2001 and 2014, there was a five-fold increase in the number of overdose deaths from benzodiazepines.

Overdose deaths from prescription medications are at an all time high, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Instute of Drug Abuse.1 Rates nearly tripled between 2001 and 2014 overall. For benzodiazepines, there was a five-fold increase, and for opiate pain relievers, there was a 3.4-fold increase. While there was also a six-fold increase in heroin-related deaths and a 42% increase in cocaine-related deaths, the most rapidly growing drug-related problem in the United States in prescription drug overdose.2

There are multiple factors involved in these elevated rates, including an increased dependence on prescription medications.


“Opioid use has quadrupled in the US over the past decade without a clear clinical need, and this ties to the increased availability of prescription controlled substances,” according to Kenneth D Mandl, MD, MPH, a professor of biomedical informatics and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the director of the Computational Health Informatics Program (CHIP) at Boston Children’s Hospital, and his colleague, Mei-Sing Ong, PhD, a research fellow at CHIP.

According to findings that appeared in the American Journal of Medicine last month, rates of Part D Medicare recipients receiving opioid prescriptions for more than 90 days per year increased from 4.62% in 2007 to 7.35% in 2012.3 There was significant variation between states: While the 2012 data showed a prescription rate of 2.84 for New York, the rate in Utah was 10.93%.

“Individual characteristics independently associated with prolonged use included older age, female gender, white race, low income, living in a lower-education area, and comorbidity of drug abuse, rheumatoid arthritis, and depression,” the authors reported, and prolonged use “increased the odds of opioid overdose-related emergency room visits or hospitalization by 60%.”