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Opioid Epidemic Continues to Impact the Health of Older Americans

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Opioid Epidemic Continues to Impact the Health of Older Americans

According to a recent report, the opioid epidemic has hit one group of Americans particularly hard – older Americans over age 50. Moreover, baby boomers and those on the upper end of Generation X, largely overlooked as the media tends to mainly focus on younger adults.

Take these statistics reported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), for example: opioid misuse fell among persons aged 18-25 years old from 2002-2014, while abuse of prescription painkillers nearly doubled among those entering their 50’s and beyond.

For this reason, a hearing concerning this group and the opioid epidemic was convened on May 23 by the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

Sen. Robert P. Casey (D-PA) from the panel:

“Older Americans are among those unseen in this epidemic. 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.”

Also, the panel addressed Medicare practices that appear to be contributing to the crisis by covering opioids that can be diverted and abused, but less frequently covering the treatment and medication required to fight the addiction, itself.

William B. Stauffer, Executive Direction, PA Recovery Organizations Alliance:

“Overall, one in three older Americans with Medicare drug coverage are prescribed opioid painkillers. 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.”

Gary Cantress, deputy inspector general at the Department of Health and Human Services, offered disturbing facts about older adults and the worrisome practices used by Medicare.

Prescribed Painkillers | Just Believe Recovery PACantrell addressed Medicare Part D recipients, which is the section that covers prescription drugs. He states (per SAMHSA) that around 500,000 of these beneficiaries in 2016 were given high amounts of painkillers, and added that nearly 20% of that group were at “serious risk of opioid misuse and overdose.”

Cantrell added that this groups consisted of persons either receiving inappropriately large amounts of opioids or those who were engaging in doctor-shopping.

Doctor-shopping is a practice used by patients who try to obtain more prescriptions for legal narcotics such as opioids by visiting multiple physicians, pain clinics, or pharmacies.

Cantrell said that doctor-shoppers “each received high amounts of opioids and had four or more prescribers and four or more pharmacies for opioids, While some of these beneficiaries may not have been doctor shopping, receiving opioids from multiple prescribers and multiple pharmacies may still pose dangers from lack of coordinated care.”

Furthermore, most older adults get addicted to opioids via legitimate prescriptions rather than illicit street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl.


“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. 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.”

And dependence isn’t the only risk to which older patients are exposed – Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) and committee chairwoman stated that “Older adults taking opioids are also four to five times more likely to fall than those taking nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs.”

This practice can also lead to more falls and injuries among the elderly, which lead to pain and result in the prescribing of more opioids. The SAMHSA report states:

“Beyond the threat of addiction, opioid use can also pose health risks such as breathing complications, confusion, drug interaction problems, and increased risk of falls…”

And what’s worse – health care provider may be unaware of the actual source of the patient’s condition.


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

About the Epidemic

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2016, more than 64,000 in the U.S. died from an overdose involving drugs or alcohol. Of those, 42,400 fatatlies were related to illict or legal opioids such as heroin or oxycodone. The CDC estimates that roughly 115 people in the U.S. die each day from an opioid-related overdose.

Get Help Today

If you or someone you love is abusing substances, please seek treatment as soon as possible. There are many resources available to help you or your loved one.

Please call us today at 888-380-0342 for a free consultation.

~ Nathalee G. Serrels, M.A., Psychology

Just Believe Recovery Carbondale

Just Believe Recovery is a fully licensed, Joint Commission accredited, comprehensive drug and alcohol treatment center located in Carbondale, Pennsylvania

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