Surprising New Data on Opioid Abuse in America

Surprising New Data on Opioid Abuse in America

It has long been reported that the problem of opioid abuse is an equal opportunity employer. It strikes the rich and the not so rich, those who are white and those of color, the well educated and the not so well educated.

It also strikes the young and the old.

New research from a new Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine study clarifies that last point and points to some race disparities.

According to data just published in JAMA Network Open, opioid-related overdose deaths among those 55 and older have risen by 1,886% since 1999.

In that timespan, 79,893 adults in this age cohort have died from an opioid-related drug overdose.

And since 2013, non-Hispanic black adults have died from an opioid overdose at a rate four times that of all other groups.

That last piece of data has addiction experts puzzled. What caused deaths among African-American adults to spike so dramatically beginning in 2013?

Maryann Mason, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and one of the study’s lead authors speculates that date marked the third wave of the opioid crisis – the moment when fentanyl began showing up in drug supplies. She believes “older Black men are more involved in illicit drug use, while other populations are more involved in prescription drug use.”

The study also suggests that the spike in opioid overdose deaths among older Americans could be tied to social isolation, depression, and the use of opioids for common age-related chronic health conditions (e.g., arthritis). Declining intellectual powers among this cohort could also be contributing to medication errors. Another factor… physicians often fail to screen older patients for the potential for drug abuse, leading to dangerous prescriptions.

What can be done to help protect seniors?

Lori Post, the Buehler Professor of Geriatric Medicine and professor of emergency medicine and medical social sciences at Feinberg, suggests training those who cater to the needs of older Americans to look for signs of drug abuse might help.

And family members should watch for signs of new or worsening confusion, frequent falls, and frequent requests for medication doses.

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