Experts say it’s "a public health problem that has gone under the radar.”
The steep jump in opioid drug overdoses has made headlines in the recent months, calling attention to the growing problem with drugs like heroin and OxyContin, but another class of drugs has been quietly positioning itself as a major contributor to the problem — benzodiazepines or “benzos”, which are sedative drugs like Xanax and Valium.
In fact, a new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that the death rate in the United States from overdoses on benzos has increased more than fivefold since 1996. The researchers looked at data from 1996 to 2013, finding that benzo prescriptions increased by a whopping 67 percent over the 18-year period, skyrocketing from 8.1 million prescriptions in 1996 to 13.5 million in 2013.
Plus, the average quantity filled for the medications more than doubled from 1996 to 2013.
The data shows that the death rate from overdosing on drugs like Xanax and Valium increased from 0.58 deaths per 100,000 adults in 1996 to 3.14 deaths per 100,000 adults in 2013 — what lead author Marcus Bachhuber, assistant professor of medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, calls “a public health problem that has gone under the radar.”
In the US, an estimated 1 in 20 adults fills a benzo prescription during the course of a year. People can be prescribed the drugs for a number of reasons like anxiety, insomnia, and mood disorders.
“Overdoses from benzodiazepines have increased at a much faster rate than prescriptions for the drugs, indicating that people have been taking them in a riskier way over time,” says Bachhuber.
The researchers aren’t exactly sure what caused this significant increase in overdoses, but suggest that it may have something to do with patients taking higher doses of the drugs per day, taking them for extended periods of time, or getting them from sources other than doctors.
“The greater quantity of benzodiazepines prescribed to patients—more than doubling over the time period—suggests a higher daily dose or more days of treatment, either of which could increase the risk of fatal overdose,” said senior author Joanna Starrels, associate professor of medicine at Einstein, in a press release.
Starrels also notes that combining benzodiazepines with alcohol or other drugs is extremely dangerous and can lead to fatal overdoses. A troubling trend that emerged in the research was that opioids were involved in 75 percent of overdose deaths involving benzos, suggesting that people are mixing pills and consuming lethal pharmaceutical drug cocktails.
“An obvious way to improve benzodiazepine safety would be for people to reduce their use of these medicines,” said study co-author Chinazo Cunningham, professor family and social medicine at Einstein. “But we should also be emphasizing the danger of fatal overdose from taking benzodiazepines concurrently with opioid painkillers or with alcohol.”
Hopefully this research sheds light on a pressing issue that hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, and the scientists report no conflict of interest.