You’ve no doubt heard of the opioid epidemic, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives each year. In fact, from May 2020 to April 2021, overdose deaths from opioid drugs grew to over 100,000 in the US alone.
But what you might not have known is that a significant portion of older adults are also affected. We tend to think of drug abuse and overdose deaths as something that primarily happens to younger people. But in 2019 alone, over 10,000 opioid deaths were in people over age 55. And the rates of addiction and overdose have been climbing in recent years, in all age categories.
While synthetic drugs like fentanyl are often responsible for deaths in younger people, prescription drugs are often the culprit in older Americans who become addicted.
The problem stems from how opioids behave in the body. The drugs trigger an endorphin release, which are chemicals our bodies naturally produce to help us cope with pain or stress. But with repeated use of opioids, the body slows its natural endorphin release. You then feel like you need the drug more often and require more to obtain the same effects.
Even when an injury or illness clears up, and you theoretically no longer need the drug to manage pain, your body’s natural endorphin levels are now permanently lowered.
The biology behind this epidemic does not discriminate based on age; and opioids affect everyone in more or less the same way. But we don’t have much public awareness of opioid abuse in older people, because the common perception is that drug abuse is a “young people thing” and that older people are too mature and responsible to fall victim to a drug dependence.
Awareness among medical professionals and family members is key to spotting the signs of a drug dependence. But personal responsibility and education is important, too. When seeking a prescription drug for pain relief, talk to your doctor about the possibility of developing a dependence. Follow directions precisely with regard to dosage and discontinue pain medication when no longer needed. Follow your doctor’s advice if they feel you should gradually “step down” your dosage.
And finally, understand that increased tolerance and drug dependence can happen to anyone. There is no shame in seeking help if you suspect a problem, expert help can help you get your dependence under control.