America’s senior population is increasingly suffering from fatal drug overdoses, according to a new study. The results showed that drug overdose deaths among older adults have quadrupled in the past two decades! This shines new light on senior drug use and may be able to provide further understanding to address overdose issues for seniors more effectively.

According to study coauthor, Chelsea Shoveral, an assistant professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, the study’s results point to a new need for planning. She said, “It’s important to think of and plan for overdose as a problem that affects people across the life course.” Since 1999, fatal drug overdoses in the U.S. have increased, largely due to the opioid epidemic, especially with drugs like Fentanyl being used. Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid that is 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. There has been an increase in illicit drug use among older Americans in recent years according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is also common for older adults to take multiple drugs every day, which can increase the risk of overdosing or make for dangerous drug interactions. Shover said, “This may in part be due to an aging population of people who use drugs.” Shover’s statement seems to be further supported by Northwestern University as they have identified some people in the baby boomer generation began using drugs in their youth and continued to use them as they aged. Researchers from Northwestern University used the CDC WONDER (Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research) database, which contains information on all deaths in the United States and their underlying causes, to analyze for the study. Based on death certificates, the following data has been compiled.

  • Per 100,000 Americans over 65 in 2021, there were 12 fatal drug overdoses, up from 3 per 100,000 in 2002.
  • In the 65-plus age group, Black seniors had the highest mortality rate, at nearly 31 deaths per 100,000 people.
  • According to data available for 2021, 6,702 seniors over 65 died from drug overdoses. Opioids accounted for 57% of these deaths; stimulants accounted for 39%; and both caused 18%.
  • 83% of the 6,702 deaths were unintentional, while 13% were intentional and 4% were undetermined. The majority of unintentional deaths were caused by illicitly manufactured drugs, including synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines, while 20% involved both prescription and illegal drugs.
  • Prescription opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antiepileptic drugs, and sedatives caused more than two-thirds of intentional deaths.
  • An overdose caused one death out of every 370 among seniors in 2021.

Shover said, “These findings increase the urgency of Medicare parity — that is, requiring Medicare to cover evidence-based treatment for substance use disorder the same way Medicaid and other public and private insurance providers are.” Seniors need to have access to help and financial support. This can serve as a preventative measure as well as provide high risk patients of overdose with naloxone to reduce potential overdose fatalities. Seniors should have access to non-drug treatments as well such as physical therapy, talk-therapy, and support groups to help them manage their physical and mental states. All in all, the studies have shown that substance issues are present in all generations and there needs to be more awareness and implementation of support to prevent overdose deaths.

Scottsdale Recovery and Detox Center® provides a wide range of services and support to people of all ages that are struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse issues. Visit or call 1-888-NODRUGS for more information and support.

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