Opioid Addiction on the Rise Among Older Americans

senior man addict

There is an upwards trend of opioid addiction among older people, which goes against the common stereotype of most opioid addicts being younger. Contrary to that view, Americans of all ages are at risk for opioid addiction, with older Americans facing unique challenges and harm when they misuse opioids.

The elderly are currently experiencing a steady increase in opioid misuse, addiction, overdose, and death, indicating the problem is worsening for this age group with each passing year.

A Look at the Data

A recent study published in JAMA Network assessed the rate of fatal opioid overdoses for elderly Americans between 1999 and 2019. The findings include the following data points:

  • From 1999 to 2019, 78,893 Americans over 55 died from opioid overdoses.
  • The annual opioid overdose death rate for elderly Americans in 1999 was 0.9 deaths for every 100,000 persons in this population group.
  • By 2019, the annual opioid overdose death rate for elderly Americans was 10.7 deaths for every 100,000 persons in this population group (a more than 10x increase in the death rate when measured per capita from 1999 to 2019).
  • Overdose deaths per year for elderly Americans began increasing in 2000, with total deaths increasing every year since.
  • In 1999, 518 Americans over 55 died from opioid overdoses. In 2019, 10,292 Americans over 55 died from such overdoses, an almost 2,000% increase.
  • While fatal opioid overdoses are increasing among all sub-demographics within the over-55 category, some important distinctions exist. About 80% of the deaths occur among adults ages 55–64. About 59% of the deaths occur among men. Non-Hispanic elderly black men are dying at a rate of 40 fatalities for every 100,000 persons in that demographic (a death rate 4x higher than the already high overall death rate for adults over 55).

The data clearly show that older Americans are no longer a demographic somewhat protected from the opioid epidemic, if they ever were. Rather, this demographic is at acute risk of opioid addiction.

Given the data, it’s essential to analyze what factors may be causing the increase in risk for older Americans. Considering just one such factor, a higher likelihood of being prescribed opioid pain relievers when one is older undoubtedly plays a significant role in exacerbating opioid addiction risk for older Americans.

Risks in Exposing the Elderly to Opioids

senior couple in a pharmacy

It’s no mystery that as one ages, chronic health conditions tend to develop. One result of this is that older adults are often prescribed more pharmaceutical drugs than other age groups, leading to a higher rate of exposure to potentially addictive medications. In fact, one study found that, of 3,000 adults between the ages of 57 and 85, more than 80% of this group used at least one prescription medication daily, with nearly half of them using more than five medications or supplements. The authors of that study concluded that at least 1 in 25 elderly Americans is at severe risk for an unwanted, potentially harmful drug interaction. Further, approximately 9% of older Americans age 65 and older use opioid pain relievers, with pain reliever use among this age group increasing nine-fold between 1995 and 2019.

Though older Americans may experience pain symptoms more frequently and in greater intensity than younger Americans, it’s extremely unlikely their pain levels have increased by 900% since 1995 (which would make the increase in pain pill prescribing commensurate to the increase in reported pain levels). Rather, the 900% increase in prescribing reflects a nationwide change in opioid prescribing trends.

In the early-2000s, American doctors began drastically increasing their opioid prescribing, usually at the behest of pharma companies. This led to dozens of multi-billion dollar lawsuits against pharma giants for their role in pushing addictive drugs on the American people, many lawsuits of which are still ongoing today.

“Opioid prescriptions have quadrupled in the past decade, with no improvement in the prevalence of pain or disability...”

The Mayo Clinic published a study highlighting serious concern over the drastic increases in opioid prescribing for older Americans. Quoting their researchers, “Opioid prescriptions have quadrupled in the past decade, with no improvement in the prevalence of pain or disability. Furthermore, older adults and females are the most likely group to use opioids long-term. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),17.4% of the US population, or 56,935,332 persons, filled at least 1 opioid prescription in 2017, and opioid prescribing was highest at 26.8% in the older age group [older than 65 years of age].” If older Americans are exhibiting an increase in opioid-related addiction and overdoses, it’s almost certain the 900% spike in opioid prescribing has had something to do with it.

Helping a Family Member Break Free from Opioid Addiction

Increased opioid prescribing is just one way older Americans are exposed to addictive opioids. There are many others, and as the cumulative data show, this demographic is experiencing higher rates of addiction (and overdose death) with each passing year.

Public health officials and policymakers need to dispel the notion that drug use somehow declines as one gets older. That may have been true at one point, but it is no longer so. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about one million older Americans meet the criteria for drug addiction. Further, older Americans are now representing a larger proportion of those who require addiction treatment. In 2000, only 3.4% of treatment center admissions were of Americans over the age of 55. But by 2012, 7% of admissions were among elderly Americans.

happy senior couple

Older Americans who become addicted to opioids must receive professional help at qualified drug rehab centers. They will need specialized care, as getting off opioid drugs (particularly opioid pain relievers) will often mean finding an alternative pain relief program that does not include a highly addictive and dangerous drug.

According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 70,630 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2019. Approximately 10.1 million Americans met the criteria for prescription opioid misuse, and 1.6 million Americans (many of them elderly) misused prescription opioids for the first time that year.

These are extremely concerning statistics. Please don’t let your loved one become just another fatality to be recorded by the public health institutions next year. If you have a parent, grandparent, uncle, aunt, or other elderly loved one in your life who is misusing opioids, help them enter a qualified drug rehab center as soon as possible. Please don’t wait until it is too late for them to get help.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.