The Increasing Use of Opioids in Older Adults

In recent years, the rising trend in opioid use among older adults has raised significant concerns within the medical and public health communities. Opioids, a class of drugs commonly prescribed for pain relief, have shown a notable increase in usage among individuals aged 55 and above. These drugs, while beneficial for short-term pain relief, carry inherent risks, especially for the older population.

The Rising Trend of Opioid Use Among Older Adults

Data indicate an alarming surge in opioid use in the senior population. From 1999 to 2019, the opioid-related overdose death rate of people ages 55 and older increased by tenfold, a 1,886% increase. In 1999, just over 500 individuals aged 55+ died from opioid overdoses. In 2019, the number of deaths from opioid overdoses for the same age group was 10,300. 

This dramatic spike can largely be attributed to several factors:

  • Chronic Pain Management: As people age, they are more likely to experience medical conditions with chronic pain. Medical professionals prescribe opioids to manage this pain, especially when other treatments have failed to provide relief.
  • Surgery and Recovery: Older adults often undergo surgical procedures, from joint replacements to surgeries related to chronic diseases. Opioids are commonly prescribed for post-operative pain management, leading to increased use in this age group.
  • Increased Accessibility: With advances in healthcare, there’s greater accessibility to medications, including opioids. This has led to an increase in prescribing these medications for older adults.
  • Polypharmacy: Older adults frequently have multiple health conditions and are often taking various medications simultaneously (polypharmacy). This increases the likelihood of being prescribed opioids along with other drugs.
  • Lack of Awareness: There is often a lack of awareness about the risks associated with opioid use, especially among older adults. This can include a lack of understanding about the potential for dependency, addiction, and overdose.
  • Inadequate Pain Management Training: Some healthcare providers may not have adequate training in pain management and the use of alternative pain relief methods, leading them to prescribe opioids more readily.

Understanding these factors is crucial in addressing the opioid crisis and ensuring the well-being of older adults.

The Dangers of Opioid Use for Older Adults

The use and potential misuse of opioids among senior citizens come with significant dangers. 

  1. As individuals age, their metabolism slows down, meaning their bodies take longer to break down drugs, including opioids. This can lead to an increased risk of overdose since the drug remains in their system for a longer time. 
  2. Opioids can cause drowsiness, confusion, and dizziness, leading to an increased risk of falls and injuries, which can be particularly severe for older adults.
  3. Opioid use can also lead to dependency, where the individual becomes physically reliant on the drug and may experience withdrawal symptoms without it. Over time, this can develop into an addiction, where the compulsion to use the drug becomes overwhelming, significantly impacting the individual’s health and quality of life.
  4. The interaction between opioids and other medications that older adults might be taking for various health issues can pose significant health risks, including respiratory depression and even death. 
  5. Chronic opioid use can lead to constipation, sleep-disordered breathing, and an increased risk of heart problems.

Do Prescription Opioids Affect Cognitive Function in Older Adults?

Older adults’ cognitive function can be negatively affected by using prescription opioids. A study by the Mayo Clinic showed that over 7.5 years, 70% of study participants who had received one or more opioid prescriptions experienced a decline in the performance of cognitive functions, especially in language, memory, and attention. The chance of participants developing mild cognitive impairment (impairment greater than that due to normal aging) if they had taken opioids increased by 20%. 

There Is Hope

If you or someone you know is struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, there is hope. A treatable, chronic brain disease, addiction can affect anyone. Located in the scenic Smoky Mountains of eastern Tennessee, English Mountain Recovery offers gender-specific addiction treatment services that focus on physical, emotional, and spiritual healing to help you regain control of your life. It is never too late to take the first step towards living a sober life. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you.