Much attention has been focused on the risks of opioids for younger adults; but the use of opioids among older Americans should also be raising alarms. According to a new survey of people ages 50 and older, nearly 60% of respondents are personally concerned that taking opioids can lead to addiction and dependence. Despite these concerns, some of their actions may actually increase opioid-related risks. About one-third of those prescribed opioids keep unused pills in their home, making them available for diversion or misuse. In fact, survey respondents admitted to misusing these medications with nearly 40% using leftover opioids for conditions the drugs were not initially prescribed to treat.

In 2017, nearly 25 Americans over the age of 55 lost their lives each day to an opioid overdose. The aging population is particularly vulnerable to the side effects of opioids, including long-term use and abuse. In fact, 70% of survey respondents agree that opioids are being overprescribed and six in 10 are specifically concerned that their peers are taking too many of these drugs.

The new data, titled Seniors & Opioids: A Choices Matter Survey, was conducted in partnership with Reader’s Digest among 1,239 adults ages 50 and older during a two-week period in April 2019.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in three Medicare Part D beneficiaries has received an opioid prescription, with some receiving what is considered extreme amounts of opioids – an average daily morphine equivalence greater than 240 mg for 12 months. Additionally, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that opioid misuse doubled among Americans ages 50 and older over twelve years and Medicare beneficiaries are now the fastest growing population with diagnosed opioid use disorders.

“Earlier this year, the National Council on Aging (NCOA) surveyed more than 200 partner organizations that serve the aging population and our findings further support those of the Choices Matter Survey. In fact, we found that 81% of those organizations agree their clients have little knowledge of safe and affordable alternatives to opioids,” said Kathleen Cameron, Senior Director of NCOA and a pharmacist. “NCOA research also uncovered that while 70% of these organizations have had to increase their efforts to address the opioid epidemic, less than 28% routinely screen vulnerable aging clients for opioid abuse or dependency. NCOA believes resources need to be invested in educating our aging population and those who serve older adults, in order to reach those at-risk before they become dependent on opioids,” added Cameron.

Seniors are vulnerable to long-term opioid use after surgery

While older adults are often prescribed opioids to treat chronic pain conditions, receiving opioids after surgery can also lead to long-term use. Americans ages 65 and up undergo nearly 16 million surgical procedures each year and are commonly prescribed opioids to treat pain following surgery. According to the survey:

  • Concerns with Opioids: Nearly one in four seniors have concerns about taking opioids to manage pain following surgery
  • Seniors Want Better Access to Alternatives: Most seniors (82%) agree that patients and doctors need more access to non-opioid pain management options and the majority believe that access to non-opioids would reduce addiction (61%) and related deaths (55%)
  • Still Using Opioids: Unfortunately, while older Americans acknowledge the benefits of non-opioids, 60% would still choose an opioid over a non-opioid option for postsurgical pain

“We must work to slash the notion that opioids are the only effective option to treat pain after surgery when we have safe and effective non-opioid options available that can eliminate the risks of taking opioids without compromising patient care,” said Dr. Shariff K. Bishai. “This epidemic is a wildfire. And while its clear efforts are being made to try and slow it down, it will take time before it’s extinguished. Educating healthcare professionals and patients about non-opioid options is an important step in the right direction.”

Caregivers are more aware of non-opioid options to manage pain

The survey also examined caregivers’ behaviors, attitudes and knowledge related to opioids. Findings showed that caregivers are more familiar with non-opioid treatments than non-caregivers (37% vs. 22%, respectively). Those who care for older adults also feel more strongly that patients and doctors need better access to non-opioid treatments (60% vs. 49%) and are more likely to proactively ask doctors for non-opioid treatments following surgery (45% vs 38%).

To learn more about the survey findings and to download an infographic about seniors and opioids click here.