CHICAGO, Ill. — In discussions about the opioid crisis, there’s an age group that's often left out— senior citizens.
A new study found fatal overdoses in seniors are outpacing those in younger adults.
"I'll admit it was a bit surprising to me too," said Maryann Mason, a professor of emergency medicine at Northwestern University.
Mason recently penned a study that found, nationwide, overdose deaths among senior citizens have increased 15-fold since the millennium, compared to a seven-fold increase among the general population.
"The evidence suggests that older adults are overexposed to opioids, which puts them at risk for misuse and potentially overdose," said Mason.
She’s now working to pinpoint exactly why the numbers for seniors are so high, but she’s boiled it down to a few possibilities.
First, she says dementia and Alzheimer's can impact a senior's ability to take the right dose of a medication.
Also, as people age, they metabolize opioids less effectively.
Then there are the mental health struggles. Isolation and depression increase with age. Mason says that can lead someone to misuse drugs.
Mason believes another reason may be that the generation has been exposed to non-regulated drugs more than previous generations.
"The Baby Boomers lived through the 60s and were exposed to recreational drug use, and many have continued that into older age," said Mason.
"A form of ageism has sort of turned us away from that lens and in more into the medical side of things, but I think we need both lenses for this," she added.
The numbers match what medical professionals, like Dr. Alfredo Rivera, a psychiatrist at the HealthONE Behavioral Health and Wellness Center in Colorado and medical director of the Senior Unit, have seen.
"Frequently we find numerous issues with medication overuse or overdose," he said.
He says the most common symptom to know if a loved one is not taking medicine correctly is confusion.
"It can range from just changes in their behavior, changes in their sleep pattern or changes in their mood," he said.
Experts also suggest checking in with their doctors and prescribers, as well as looking at their living situation.
"Look at their surroundings, the condition of their car, for example, the condition of their refrigerator or their living situation in general, there'll be subtle signs that the elderly person is not functionally as you expected them to two, five years ago," he said.
Mason says that while this issue may be more pervasive than people think, older adults often do well in treatment, even better than younger adults.