Q:  I keep hearing about the opioid epidemic. Are seniors affected by it?

A:  The opioid epidemic (or opioid crisis) is the phrase used to describe the overuse, misuse/abuse and overdose deaths attributed to the opioid class of powerful pain-relieving drugs. The opioid crisis does not discriminate.  It affects people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic classes.

How opioids work

Opioids increase chemicals in the brain called endorphins.  Endorphins ease pain and trigger feelings of pleasure.  It is this trigger of the “pleasure center” of the brain that often sets the stage for misuse, abuse –and addiction.

Opioids and seniors

4-9% of adults aged 65 or older use prescription opioids for pain relief and misuse is a growing problem among older adults.  According to Web MD, one study found that 7% of adults aged 50 and up admitted to misusing their prescription opioids.  The CDC notes that 8.2% of adults over 60 used prescription opioids in the past 30 days. reports that while the U.S. population of adults 55 and older increased by about 6% between 2013-2015, the proportion of people in that age group seeking treatment for opioid use disorder increased nearly 54%.

Opioids can be very effective, but they come with a risk of serious side effects, according to Dr. Cary Reid, MD, PhD with the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.  Older adults are even more susceptible to these side effects.  They are at higher risk of accidental misuse or abuse because they often have multiple prescriptions and chronic diseases, increasing the risk of adverse interactions. A senior’s slower metabolism also affects the breakdown of drugs, keeping them in the system longer.

If your doctor suggests an opioid

Dr. Reid suggests these questions:

  • Do I have an option for another non-opioid medication?
  • Is this the lowest dose possible?
  • What side effects should I expect; how can I manage them?
  • How will we determine if the drug is working and whether we can try something else?
  • How often will you need to see me to track my progress?
  • Will the opioid interact with my other medications?
  • How will this drug affect my daily activities—like driving?

It is a good idea when starting any new medication to keep a log of side effects you may experience –and share them with your physician. There are good resources in our community, if you or the senior in your life needs help or answers about these highly addictive drugs. You can always start with a call to The Experts in Aging at One Senior Place, 321-751-6771.


One Senior Place is a marketplace for resources and provider of information, advice, care and on-site services for seniors and their families. Questions for this column are answered by professionals in nursing, social work, care management and in-home care. Send questions to, call 321-751-6771 or visit One Senior Place, The Experts in Aging. Lisa Conway is a Registered Nurse and a Certified Care Manager for Senior Partner Care Services, Viera.