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A Growing Number of Older Adults Suffer from Opioid Use Disorders 

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Opioid misuse among older adults is often under diagnosed and under treated, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  One of the most common causes of misdiagnosis is that older adults may be taking several medications daily.  Consequently, the interactions between medications can worsen the side effects of each.  Therefore, recognizing an opioid misuse by seniors may be difficult.

Causes of Problematic Opioid Use Among Older Adults

Adults over the age of 65 years are at risk for problematic opioid use for several reasons:

  • Many of these individuals suffer from chronic pain, comorbid medical issues, and depression. 
  • The prolonged use of painkillers by patients like these can lead quickly to addiction.  
  • As people age, their bodies are unable to properly metabolize medications, making them more vulnerable to serious side effects.  
  • It is not uncommon for older people to forget when they took the last dose.  About 35% of people over age 50 report misusing their prescriptions.

Today, more than one million older individuals live with a substance use disorder.  For example, research shows that 79,893 people over age 55 died of an opioid overdose over ten years.

Warning Signs of Opioid Misuse by Seniors

It is easy to overlook the signs of opioid addiction among the elderly.  For instance, In many cases, the symptoms mimic other medical disorders such as dementia, depression, or diabetes.  

Accidental overdoses among the elderly have increased significantly in recent years.  For this reason, it’s wise to be aware of the warning signs of opioid misuse if you live with or care for an elderly person.

Warning signs of opioid misuse by the elderly can be subtle and are often attributed to the person’s age or other medical conditions.  As a precaution, watch for these signs and symptoms:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Declining energy
  • Irritability, behavioral changes
  • Isolation
  • Poor hygiene
  • Weight changes
  • Memory and emotional problems
  • Unexplained sadness or depression

Opioids adversely affect short-term memory, a problem commonly attributed to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.  Alternatively, opioids are associated with an increased risk of developing dementia.  To rule out opioid misuse, a physician should examine an older person exhibiting unusual memory issues.

Estimated Prevalence of Opioid Use Disorder in Older Adults

Studies show that drug abuse is on the rise among people who are 65 or older.  As a result, emergency department visits related to opioid misuse rose 220% over eight years.  This sharp increase is due in part to the fact that one-third of Medicare Part D participants are prescribed opioids.  About 10 percent of them received long-term prescriptions for non-cancer-related pain.   

According to the CDC, more than 500,000 people who receive Medicaid benefits received excessively high doses of prescription opioids issued for extended periods.  Unfortunately, there is a lack of research on opioid misuse among older adults.  These individuals are often overlooked as a result of the intense national focus on the opioid epidemic among young people.

Risks Associated With Opioid Misuse by Seniors

Older adults face unique complications when it comes to opioid use.  These individuals are more prone to experiencing negative side effects due to their reduced metabolism and other factors.  Some of the most common opioid side effects experienced by older adults include:

  • Nausea
  • Urine retention
  • Constipation
  • Sedation
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Respiratory depression
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Cardiovascular complications
  • Vision impairment
  • Poor coordination
  • Inability to focus on tasks

A common misconception is that these side effects are a normal part of aging.  Individuals may be subjected to serious health complications due to this error.

Other risks related to opioid use by older people include hospitalization, injuries from falls, and death.  To prevent these severe side effects, consider other pain relief methods before using opioids.  

Several non-opioid medications can be effective in treating chronic pain.  Those medications include non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, antidepressants, anti-epileptics, and capsaicin creams or patches.  

What Can Be Done to Prevent Opioid Risks?

Many people trust opioids because their physician prescribed them.  Based on his educational background and skills, they rely on him to make the right choices regarding their health care.  A physician may try to educate his patient about the dangers of opioids, but the patient may not remember everything he says.  Older adults are especially vulnerable to this type of scenario.  

Older adults can avoid opioid dangers by following these suggestions:

  • Don’t take medications more often than directed.
  • Use only the correct dosage each time.
  • Discuss possible side effects with your doctor.
  • Read the information booklet provided with the medication.
  • Make sure the doctor knows about all other medications taken, including OTC drugs.
  • Don’t use or buy another person’s prescription drugs. 

Most importantly, inform a physician about any unusual side effects caused by the drug.  Opioids could interact with other medications.  In some cases, the drug interactions can be life-threatening.

Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder in the Elderly

Most of us don’t want to think of our elderly parents or grandparents as having an opioid use disorder (OUD).  But, if they struggle to do simple daily tasks, professional advice is recommended.  Consult with the physician first to determine if your loved one needs to seek treatment.  

Treating older adults for opioid use disorder should involve a customized treatment plan to address any co-occurring physical or mental health issues.  At Design for Change Recovery, we offer the specific type of individualized attention senior adults require.  Our program is based on addressing the unique needs of each client to ensure positive outcomes.  

Learn more about our evidence-based addiction treatment for opioid use disorder by contacting our Lancaster, CA facility today.  


  • – Signs of Opioid Addiction in the Elderly: What You Should Know
  • – Prescription Opioids and Risk of Dementia or Cognitive Decline: A Prospective Cohort Study
  • – Increasing Rates of Opioid Misuse Among Older Adults Visiting Emergency Departments
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