A Look at 5 Women We Lost Too Soon to Overdose

From singers to actresses to personalities, we’ve seen the brightest stars explode and fade, blessing us with their talent before succumbing to their demons. Let’s take a look at five women we lost too soon to an overdose – and the statistics behind the drugs they died from.

Judy Garland

Frances Ethel Gumm was much better known to the world as Judy Garland, a singer, actress, dancer, and vaudevillian. She had won all sorts of awards from a Golden Globe to a special Tony to a Grammy and an Oscar. But she rose to fame at an early age and that affected her both physically as well as mentally. Pressure to look better – at any age, but especially when you’re a teen – can twist a person up inside and studio execs upped that pressure constantly. Garland plunged into alcohol and substance abuse and ultimately overdosed on barbiturates at the age of 47.

Barbiturates are addictive drugs that cause relaxation and sleepiness.  At fairly low doses, barbiturates may make you seem drunk or intoxicated. People who use them become physically dependent on them. But just as an overdose can be life-threatening, so can be stopping them. Tolerance to the mood-altering effects of barbiturates develops rapidly with repeated use. But, tolerance to the lethal effects develops more slowly, and the risk of severe poisoning increases with continued use.

Barbiturate use is a major addiction problem for many people. Most overdoses from it involve a mixture of drugs, usually alcohol and barbiturates, or barbiturates and opiates (heroin or oxycontin). Some users take a combination of all these drugs. 

In 2014, around 2,700,000 Americans – that’s 1% of the population – reported using barbiturates for non-medical purposes without the supervision of a medical professional. Barbiturate overdose can be dangerous and possibly fatal, with approximately 10% of barbiturate overdoses resulting in death.

Anna Nicole-Smith

Born Vickie Lee Hogan, Anna Nicole-Smith first gained fame as the 1993 Playmate of the Year. She married at 17 and again at 26 years old to the billionaire 89-year-old J. Howard Marshall. She tragically lost her own son Daniel to an overdose of antidepressants including Zoloft, Lexapro, and methadone. Nicole-Smith’s own life ended in 2007 with an accidental overdose of the sedative chloral hydrate that became increasingly lethal because it combined with other prescription drugs in her system, specifically four benzodiazepines: Klonopin (Clonazepam), Ativan (Lorazepam), Serax (Oxazepam), and Valium (Diazepam). Furthermore, she had taken Benadryl (Diphenhydramine) and Topamax (Topiramate), an anticonvulsant AMPA/Kainate antagonist, which likely contributed to the sedative effect of chloral hydrate and the benzodiazepines. Although the individual levels of any of the benzodiazepines in her system would not have been sufficient to cause death, their combination with a high dose of chloral hydrate led to her overdose. 

Benzodiazepines (BZD, BZs), sometimes called “benzos”, are a class of psychoactive drugs. In 2008, approximately 5.2% of US adults aged 18 to 80 years used benzodiazepines. The percentage who used benzodiazepines increased with age from 2.6% (18-35 years) to 5.4% (36-50 years) to 7.4% (51-64 years) to 8.7% (65-80 years). Benzodiazepine use was nearly twice as prevalent in women as men. The proportion of benzodiazepine use that was long-term increased with age from 14.7% (18-35 years) to 31.4% (65-80 years), while the proportion that received a benzodiazepine prescription from a psychiatrist decreased with age from 15.0% (18-35 years) to 5.7% (65-80 years). In all age groups, roughly one-quarter of individuals receiving a benzodiazepine involved long-acting benzodiazepine use.

Amy Winehouse

Amy Jade Winehouse was a singer/songwriter with a truly phenomenal voice and talent. At the age of just 27, she died from alcohol poisoning after years of alcohol and substance abuse. In her past, she’d accidentally overdosed once on heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine, and alcohol – and those issues plagued her repeatedly in her last few years as she started and stopped and started substance abuse in an endless cycle that only ended when she died. At death, her blood alcohol level was reportedly 0.416%. The lethal level is somewhere between 0.3% and 0.4% in most people, but for long-term heavy drinkers, it could be higher.

Alcohol poisoning is usually caused by binge drinking at high intensity. Approximately 38 million U.S. adults report binge drinking an average of four times per month and consuming an average of eight drinks per episode. During 2010–2012, an annual average of 2,221 alcohol poisoning deaths (8.8 deaths per 1 million population) occurred among persons aged over 15 years in the United States. Of those deaths, 1,681 (75.7%) involved adults aged 35–64 years, and 1,696 (76.4%) involved men. Although non-Hispanic whites accounted for the majority of alcohol poisoning deaths (67.5%; 1,500 deaths), the highest age-adjusted death rate was among American Indians/Alaska Natives (49.1 per 1 million). The age-adjusted rate of alcohol poisoning deaths in states ranged from 5.3 per 1 million in Alabama to 46.5 per 1 million in Alaska.

Janis Joplin

Janis Joplin was a soul/blues singer who shot to fame in the 1960’s. Her career was cut short at age 27 when she died of a heroin overdose.

As heroin use has increased, so have heroin-related overdose deaths:

  • Heroin-related overdose deaths increased fivefold from 2010 to 2016.
  • From 2015 to 2016, heroin overdose death rates increased by 19.5%, with nearly 15,500 people dying in 2016.
  • In 2016, males aged 25-44 had the highest heroin death rate at 15.5 per 100,000, which was an increase of 17.4% from 2015.

Past misuse of prescription opioids is the strongest risk factor for starting heroin use – especially among people who became dependent upon or abused prescription opioids in the past year. This indicates that the transition from prescription opioid non-medical use to heroin use may be part of the progression to addiction.

  • More than nine in 10 people who used heroin also used at least one other drug. 
  • Among new heroin users, approximately three out of four report having abused prescription opioids prior to using heroin.
  • Among people presenting for treatment for addiction to opioids, and who initiated the use of an opioid in 2015, about two out of three started with prescription opioids.

Whitney Houston

Another stunning singer with a powerful, beautiful voice that resonated with millions the world over, Whitney Houston is one of the best-selling musical artists of all time. Sadly and tragically, in 2012 she accidentally drowned in the bathtub, with heart disease and cocaine use as contributing factors. Toxicology results revealed additional drugs in her system including diphenhydramine(Benadryl), alprazolam (Xanax), cannabis, and cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril).

According to a CDC report, drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016. Nearly two-thirds of these deaths (66%) involved a prescription or illicit opioid. Overdose deaths increased in all categories of drugs examined for men and women, people ages 15 and older, all races and ethnicities, and across all levels of urbanization.

These deaths prove, at least, that no matter how much fame, money, and success you can achieve, it all means nothing if you can’t face your demons head on and clean up. Here’s hoping you can do what those bright flames couldn’t – and find inner peace.