ATLANTA – Overdose deaths in the U.S. are rising fastest among middle-aged women, and their drug of choice is usually prescription painkillers, the government reported Tuesday.

“Mothers, wives, sisters and daughters are dying at rates that we have never seen before,” said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which compiled the data.

The female overdose problem is one of the few health issues the CDC is working on that are clearly getting worse, he added.

For many decades, the overwhelming majority of U.S. overdose deaths were men killed by heroin or cocaine. But by 2010, 40 percent were women — most of them middle-aged women who took prescription painkillers.

Skyrocketing female overdose death rates are closely tied to a boom in the overall use of prescribed painkillers. The new report is the CDC’s first to spotlight how the death trend has been more dramatic among women.

The CDC found that the number and rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths among females increased about fivefold from 1999 to 2010. Among men, such deaths rose about three and a half times.

Overall, more men still die from overdoses of painkillers and other drugs; there were about 23,000 such deaths in 2010, compared with about 15,300 for women. Men tend to take more risks with drugs than women, and often are more prone to the kind of workplace injuries that lead to their being prescribed painkillers in the first place, experts say. But the gap has been narrowing dramatically. Studies suggest that women are more likely to have chronic pain, to be prescribed higher doses, and to use pain drugs longer than men.