Older Americans Among "The Unseen" In The Opioid Epidemic

By Beth Leipholtz 06/01/18

Opioid misuse nearly doubled for Americans older than 50 over a 12-year span. 

older male looking at a pill bottle from his medicine cabinet.

The focus of the opioid crisis tends to be on younger generations. But this could be problematic, as, according to the Washington Post, older generations are increasingly at risk to develop opioid use disorders. 

This is backed up by information from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), which states that from 2002 to 2014, opioid misuse decreased in younger age groups, especially in those age 18-25.

However, in Americans older than 50, use just about doubled. 

On Wednesday, May 23, the Senate Special Committee on Aging held a session to discuss opioid use by the elderly population. 

“Older Americans are among those unseen in this epidemic,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania said, according to the Post. “In 2016, one in three people with a Medicare prescription drug plan received an opioid prescription. This puts baby boomers and our oldest generation at great risk.”

Medicare can be problematic in situations such as this, because it funds opioids for patients, but it does not assist with care or medication that can be used to combat the opioid crisis, the Post notes. 

William B. Stauffer, executive director of the Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, spoke at the hearing and said one in three older Americans that have Medicare are prescribed opioids. 

“However, while Medicare pays for opioid painkillers, Medicare does not pay for drug and alcohol treatment in most instances, nor does it pay for all of the medications that are used to help people in the treatment and recovery process,” he said, according to the Post. “Methadone, specifically, is a medication that is not covered by Medicare to treat opioid use conditions.”

Gary Cantrell, a deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, addressed Medicare Part D (prescription medication) beneficiaries, according to the Post.

In 2016, Cantrell says, about 500,000 people “received high amounts of opioids” and nearly 20% of those are at “serious risk of opioid misuse or overdose.”

For the elderly population, problematic use of opioids often starts with prescriptions rather than street drugs. 

“Older adults are at high risk for medication misuse due to conditions like pain, sleep disorders/insomnia, and anxiety that commonly occur in this population,” Stauffer said, according to the Post. “They are more likely to receive prescriptions for psychoactive medications with misuse potential, such as opioid analgesics for pain and central nervous system depressants like benzodiazepines for sleep disorders and anxiety.”

Apart from abuse, there are other risks associated with opioid use in older populations, too. The Post states that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) pointed out at the hearing that, “Older adults taking opioids are also four to five times more likely to fall than those taking nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs.”

Opioid misuse in seniors becomes even more dangerous because doctors can have a harder time recognizing the signs, Collins says. 

“Regrettably,” Collins said, according to the Post, “health-care providers sometimes miss substance abuse among older adults, as the symptoms can be similar to depression or dementia.”

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Beth is a Minnesota girl who got sober at age 20. By day she is a website designer, and in her spare time she enjoys writing about recovery at www.lifetobecontinued.com, doing graphic design and spending time with her boyfriend and three dogs. Find Beth on LinkedInInstagram and Twitter.