Gender disparity revealed: Men at higher risk of overdose deaths than women, study shows

Men experienced significantly higher rates of overdose deaths involving opioids and stimulant drugs compared to women in 2020-2021, according to a recent study conducted by the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health. Analyzing death records from across the United States, the study found that men had a 2-3 times greater risk of overdose mortality from drugs like fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine.

While it’s been known that men tend to use drugs more frequently than women, the study revealed that this alone does not explain the disparity in overdose deaths. The researchers believe that a combination of biological, behavioral, and social factors likely contribute to the increased mortality risk for men.

The study, published in Neuropsychopharmacology, emphasizes the need for further research into the diverse factors underlying sex-based differences in vulnerability to drug use. Nora Volkow, M.D., director of NIDA, highlighted the importance of understanding these factors to develop tailored tools and strategies to protect individuals from fatal overdoses and other drug-related harms.

The data show that drug overdose deaths have been driven by the presence of illicit fentanyl in the drug supply, resulting in nearly 107,000 deaths in 2021. Historically, men have consistently had higher rates of drug overdose deaths than women.

For specific drugs, the study found that men had higher overdose death rates per 100,000 people compared to women:

  • Synthetic opioids (e.g., fentanyl): 29.0 deaths for men, compared to 11.1 for women.
  • Heroin: 5.5 deaths for men, compared to 2.0 for women.
  • Psychostimulants (e.g., methamphetamine): 13.0 deaths for men, compared to 5.6 for women.
  • Cocaine: 10.6 deaths for men, compared to 4.2 for women.

The discrepancy in overdose mortality rates between men and women remained consistent across different age groups and states, even after considering other demographic factors. While men reported higher rates of drug misuse than women, the difference in overdose mortality rates was much greater than the difference in reported drug misuse.

The authors of the study hypothesize that various factors, including biological vulnerability, risky drug-use behaviors, and social and gender-related influences, contribute to the disparity. Moving forward, researchers stress the importance of investigating the intersection of biology, social factors, and behavior in relation to sex and gender, and how these factors impact drug misuse and overdose deaths.