Senior Drug Overdoses on the Rise


Prescription pill bottles | Image by Shutterstock

Americans aged 65 and older have witnessed a tripling of drug overdose deaths over the past two decades, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

American seniors are increasingly succumbing to substance abuse, including an over 18% rise in deaths from alcohol from 2019 to 2020. In 2020 alone, over 800,000 seniors in the country were addicted to drugs, and 2.7 million suffered from alcoholism. That year, more than 5,000 seniors died of drug overdoses and 11,600 lost their lives to alcohol.

While overdoses are lower for seniors compared to other groups, the demographic has experienced a rapid increase in recent years. In 2000, death rates for the group stood at 2.4 per 100,000. Twenty years later, that number had shot up to 8.8.

Alexis Kuerbis, a professor at the Silberman School of Social Work and an expert on substance use among older adults, said that the U.S. is facing a “public health problem” that has been “increasing for a long time.”

Kuerbis pointed to the generational characteristics of today’s seniors, who are part of the baby boomer group. This cohort has had much more liberal attitudes toward drugs and alcohol than their parents did, she explained.

“Baby boomers obviously are a very different generation than the silent generation or the World War II generation … Baby boomers were far more open to using alcohol and drugs during their younger years but also through their middle-aged years, and now they are older adults,” she said.

Between 2019 and 2020, senior deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids rose by 53%. According to Kuerbis, it is possible that some of these older Americans were initially prescribed opioids to treat an injury but later transitioned to fentanyl once procuring their prescription became challenging.

While many deaths among seniors are potentially accidental, others are suicides, claimed Kuerbis. Seniors are typically happier, she said, but they also wrestle with medical conditions like dementia, terminal illness, and chronic pain, like osteoarthritis.

Black seniors experienced the highest death rate among the age cohort. Black men aged 65 to 74, in particular, succumbed to overdose at rates four times higher than Hispanic or white men of the same age.

Black women in this age bracket similarly experienced higher death rates from an overdose compared to white and Hispanic women. However, at ages 75 and over, white women experienced the highest death rate.

American Indians suffered the highest number of deaths from alcohol consumption, followed by white Americans, black Americans, and Asian Americans, according to the data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

On December 1, Governor Greg Abbot revealed he supports decriminalizing fentanyl testing strips, a reversal of his previous stance. These would allow people to test for the presence of fentanyl in other drugs, such as cocaine or heroin.

The announcement was delivered at the University of Houston, where researchers have created a fentanyl vaccine that has the potential to block synthetic opioids from reaching the brain, as The Dallas Express previously reported.

According to Abbott’s office, 1,672 people of all ages died from fentanyl use in Texas last year, a nearly 90% jump from 883 deaths in 2020 and almost eight times the number of fatalities experienced in 2018, just three years prior.

For comparison, nationally, 71,000 Americans died in 2021, a 23% increase from the year prior.

Abbott aims to amend Texas law, reclassifying fentanyl overdoses as poisonings. This would permit harsher penalties for those that sell the drug. The governor also aims to make naloxone — also known as Narcan, a prescription medication that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose — more widely available.

“There’s going to be a movement across the state to make sure we do everything that we can to protect people from dying from fentanyl, and I think test strips will be one of those ways,” he said.

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