Drug overdose deaths ‘quadrupled’ among older US adults over last two decades, study warns

‘Quadrupling of fatal overdoses among older adults should be considered in evolving policies’

Vishwam Sankaran
Monday 03 April 2023 09:27 BST
Related video: Record number of Americans dying from Fentanyl overdoses

Deaths due to drug overdose among people aged 65 and older in the US quadrupled over 20 years, according to a new study that calls for improved mental health and substance use disorder policies in the country.

Researchers, including those from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the US, assessed data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research (WONDER) database to estimate annual overdose deaths among seniors from 2002 to 2021.

They compared demographics, specific drugs, and whether the deaths were intentional, unintentional, or undetermined.

The analysis, published recently in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that fatal overdoses quadrupled from 1060 in 2002 to 6,702 in 2021 with the highest rates reported among Black people at 30.9 per 100,000.

“The dramatic rise in overdose fatalities among adults over 65 years of age in the past two decades underscores how important it is for clinicians and policymakers to think of overdose as a problem across the lifespan,” study co-author Chelsea Shover from UCLA said.

“Updating Medicare to cover evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders is crucial, as is providing harm reduction supplies such as naloxone to older adults,” Dr Shover added.

Scientists found that nearly three-fourths of the unintended fatalities involved illicit drugs such as synthetic opioids like fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamines.

They also found that in 2021, 1 in 370 senior deaths stemmed from overdoses, with about 57 per cent of those involving opioids, 39 per cent from stimulants, and about a fifth involving a combination of both.

Researchers said alcohol poisoning deaths also rose from 10 (less than 0.03 per 100,000) to 281 (0.5 per 100,000) in 2021.

About 13 per cent of overdoses in 2021 were intentional while 83 per cent were unintentional, scientists said, adding that 4 per cent were undetermined, and 5 per cent were homicides.

Among intentional overdoses, they found that prescription opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antiepileptics, and sedatives were used in nearly two-thirds of the cases.

“Even though drug overdose remains an uncommon cause of death among older adults in the U.S., the quadrupling of fatal overdoses among older adults should be considered in evolving policies focused on the overdose epidemic,” they wrote.

“Current proposals to improved mental health and substance use disorder coverage within Medicare, for example, applying mental health parity rules within Medicare, acquire greater urgency in light of this study’s results,” researchers added.

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