Overdose deaths among seniors soar over past 2 decades, UCLA study finds

A new UCLA study suggests that overdose deaths among seniors have quadrupled over the past 20 years. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Attorney General's Office/Twitter
A new UCLA study suggests that overdose deaths among seniors have quadrupled over the past 20 years. Photo courtesy of West Virginia Attorney General's Office/Twitter

March 29 (UPI) -- Suicides and substance abuse with illicit drugs have sent overdose mortality among people 65 years old and above skyrocketing -- quadrupling over the past two decades, according to researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles.

The paper was published online Wednesday in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.


The study, compiled through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research database, found that nearly three-fourths of the unintended fatalities involving illicit drugs such as synthetic opioids like fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.

Researchers found that prescription opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antiepileptics and sedatives were used in 67%of intentional overdoses.

"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," co-author Chelsea Shover 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." said Shover, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine.


The paper's authors used the CDC database, dubbed WONDER, to calculate annual overdose deaths among seniors from 2002 to 2021, comparing demographics, specific drugs, and whether the deaths were intentional, unintentional or undetermined.

They discovered that fatal overdoses jumped from 1,060 in 2002, or 3 per 100,000 population, to 6,702, 12 per 100,000, in 2021. The authors said the largest rate increase involved Blacks, at 30.9 per 100,000.

In other findings, the paper said that by 2021, 1 in 370 senior deaths stemmed from overdoses; about 13% of overdoses in 2021 were intentional and 83% were unintentional; and females accounted for 57% of intentional overdoses.

"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," the researchers said.

"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."

Last July, a government study reported that the nation's opioid epidemic is hitting minorities the hardest, with he steepest increases in overdose deaths hitting Black Americans and American Indians/Alaska Natives.


While overdose deaths climbed 24% among White Americans in 2020, still a historic high, they jumped 44% among Black people and 39% among American Indian and Alaska natives.

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