The Older Face of the Opioid Epidemic

In a recent report, the CDC tracks drug overdose deaths in the US between 1999-2015.  The trends are not exactly what you might expect.

Yes, given the recent press attention to the US opioid epidemic, the rates are predictable in that they are unacceptably high and increasing at a shocking rate. Age-adjusted drug overdose rates increased to 16.3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, more than 2.5 times the rate in 1999. Rates have increased for both men and women, different age groups, and Hispanic, non-Hispanic white, and non-Hispanic black populations. It is disheartening data that resonates with the “epidemic” status that drug overdose has recently attained.

However, one chart stood out as surprising: drug overdoses by age group. The 45-54 year old group has seen the most dramatic increase: from 4.2 deaths per 100,000 in 1999 to 21.8 in 2015. This is an average increase of 10.5% per year, a larger rate of increase than any other age group and more than twice the rate of increase for adults aged 15-24.


  Source: National Center for Health Statistics, National Vital Statistics System, Mortality.

For many reasons, the public face of the opioid epidemic focuses on images of youngervictims.  However, this report makes it is clear that interventions  must address the dramatic increase in older age groups.  And what’s behind this dramatic jump among 45-54 year olds, a group not known for reckless experimentation? A new report released by Philadelphia’s opioid epidemic task force is clear:

The peak age group for overdoses is 45-54, which represents a distinct change from earlier periods when opioid overdose deaths were far higher in those age 20-29 than any older age group. This older age group for fatal overdoses likely represents a consequence of recruitment of adults into drug dependence by over-prescribing of opioids.

Kara Freeman is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania. This post originally appeared on Health Policy$ense on May 23, 2017.