Overdose fatalities among older Americans climbed in recent years, with 6,702 U.S. residents 65 and older succumbing in 2021, according to research published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers reported that the rate of fatal overdoses for the age group quadrupled – rising from three deaths per 100,000 people in 2002 to 12 deaths per 100,000 people in 2021. Data indicates that 83% were accidental, 13% were intentional (suicide), 4% were undetermined and 0.07%(five deaths) were homicides.

The study’s most recent data showed that 57 % involved an opioid, 39 percent a stimulant, and 18% both. Of unintentional overdoses, 74% stemmed from illicit drugs, such as fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamines. But 68% of intentional overdoses involved prescription drugs, such as antidepressants, antiepileptics, benzodiazepines, sedative-hypnotics, and opioids.

The study notes that half of Medicare enrollees now take four or more prescription drugs each day. In addition, older adults are often prescribed opioids to help them cope with chronic pain or recover from a surgical procedure, according to the Administration for Community Living, a division of Health and Human Services.

This can be problematic, the agency says, because medications can have a stronger effect on older people, and drugs leave their systems more slowly than they do in younger people. The CDC reports that the number of drug overdose deaths is larger among younger adults, but the overdose death rates are increasing the fastest among those 65 and older. The researchers say their study’s findings illustrate the need for more mental health and substance-use programs aimed at older people.

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