Fatal opioid overdoses skyrocket by nearly 1,900% among older adults, study reveals

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EVANSTON, Ill. — Before the global pandemic, an opioid epidemic was one of the main concerns across the United States. Unfortunately, a new study finds these power painkillers are still taking many lives. Researchers from Northwestern University found a meteoric rise in deaths from opioid overdoses over the last decade.

Moreover, the team found that older adults are the most likely to suffer a fatal opioid overdose, despite being the most overlooked age group when it comes to drug addiction.

“Many are Baby Boomers who, in their youth, were using recreational drugs and, unlike in previous generations, they’ve continued using into their older age,” says senior author Lori Ann Post, PhD, a professor of emergency medicine and medical social sciences at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, in a university release. “That sort of flies in the face of our stereotypes of the ‘older adult.’ We don’t think of them as recreational drug users, but it’s a growing problem.”

Overdose deaths up by 1,886 percent

From 1999 to 2019, researchers collected 20 years of data on opioid overdoses among adults 55 years and older. Over the course of the two decades, 79,893 adults between 55 and 80 in the United States died from an opioid overdose.

Specifically, the rate of opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. increased by a staggering 1,886 percent among this group. In 1999, the number of deaths was 518. By 2019, the death toll rose to 10,292. Study authors say a potential reason for the growing number of opioid overdose deaths is ageism. They explain that older adults do not fit the stereotype of typical problem drug users.

“We’re talking grandmas and grandpas doing drugs, and to the point of overdosing. We don’t think of them seriously. Not as potential victims of domestic abuse, physical or sexual assault or drug addiction. That needs to change,” Post says.

Other reasons that could contribute to the rising number of opioid deaths include increased depression from social isolation, over-prescriptions for opioids for chronic conditions such as arthritis, and an aging body’s inability to efficiently metabolize opioids. Cognitive decline from old age may also cause people to forget they’ve already taken their properly prescribed medications.

Of all older adults, African American men were most likely to experience a fatal opioid overdose. By 2019, non-Hispanic Black men 55 years and older had a four times higher risk of dying from an opioid overdose than others of the same age group.

The study is published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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