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Substance Use Disorder Among Older Adults


A new study from UCLA is calling attention to an alarming rise in the number of overdose deaths among people age 65 and older.  Using the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research database, researchers determined that over the last 20 years, overdose mortality has quadrupled in this older population.  More specifically, the rate increased from 3 per 100,000 in 2002 to 12 per 100,000 in 2021.

The researchers examined the most current year’s data in depth, identifying the demographic characteristics, specific drug involvement, and manner of death (unintentional or intentional).  In addition to the eye-popping increase in overdose deaths, this research revealed additional important information about overdose fatalities in this older population:

While overdose as a cause of death remains far behind heart disease and cancer, the trend is concerning, especially when we consider the aging of the baby boom generation.  Baby Boomers (defined as individuals born between 1946 and 1964) introduce numerous complexities. They are a large cohort- estimated to be 61 million individuals in 2030 when all Baby Boomers will be over 65.  Baby Boomers, children and young adults of the 1960s and 1970s, had significantly more exposure to alcohol and drugs than the previous cohort and now have higher rates of use of these substances.

Substance use disorder in an elderly individual can be challenging to recognize considering the overall functional decline associated with aging.  Signs and symptoms may be attributed to dementia, depression, or other physical and/or neurologic conditions.  There may also be a false belief among caregivers that older people do not develop substance use disorder or need or want treatment.  As a result of these factors, substance use disorder in the older population is underdiagnosed and therefore undertreated.

Substance use disorder needs to be identified as soon as possible for every afflicted person.  This is particularly important for an older individual, who is more vulnerable to the negative effects of substance abuse with smaller amounts of a substance potentially having more of an impact on them versus younger individuals.  In addition, substance abuse will worsen existing health concerns, create new health concerns, and potentially lead to a fatal overdose.  As this new study found, fatal overdoses are on the rise sharply for individuals aged 65 and over.

Education is critical to addressing this issue.  Public health campaigns can help increase awareness about the risks of drug use and the potential dangers of combining medications.  Care givers should be proactive in discussing these issues with their patients.

Expanding access to addiction treatment services by removing financial, social, and other barriers is also crucial.  Treatment such as medication-assisted treatment (MAT), counseling, and peer support can provide the necessary support to overcome and manage substance use disorders.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, reach out to one of experts today by clicking here.

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