top of page

What Opioid Addiction in Middle Age Looks Like

The opioid epidemic has been getting worse over the past several years. 2022 saw the most drug overdose deaths in America’s history, with over 107,000 people losing their lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 68% of these people, or almost 73,000, died from synthetic opioid overdose. 

In California, fatal opioid overdoses spiked by 121% between 2019 and 2021, according to the state’s health department. 

Much of the attention in the media has been on how young adults and teens have been affected by the opioid crisis. However, middle-aged addiction to opioids is increasing as well, and what has been referred to as the silent opioid crisis is slowly coming to the foreground.

Among all age groups, addiction treatment is the best way to prevent overdose deaths from fentanyl and other opioids. Free rehab centers in California help make addiction care accessible to all residents.

Opioid Addiction in Middle-Aged Americans

Opioid addiction in middle-aged Americans can be tracked, at least partly, by the increase in opioid-related deaths in that group. According to statistics from the National Safety Council, the age groups of 45-54 and 55-64 both saw increases in opioid overdose deaths from about 9,000 and 7,000 respectively in 2019 to over 14,000 and 12,000 in 2021. 

As Baby Boomers age, healthcare professionals are engaging with a population that, more than any previous, has a long history of substance use, according to The New York Times. As a result, Medicare is bolstering its coverage of alcohol and drug treatment, but this may only be the beginning.

As middle-aged Americans continue to age, and as their levels of substance use in general (not just opioids) continue to increase, coverage options for addiction treatment may be needed more than ever.

But what accounts for this increase in overdose deaths among middle-aged Americans and the corresponding increase in opioid misuse? Several factors can influence opioid misuse as Americans get older. And some of these factors become more pressing as people age.

Vulnerability to Addiction

As we age, we may actually experience an increased risk and vulnerability to addiction. While not a lot of studies on the older brain have been conducted, one thing researchers know is that the body metabolizes substances more slowly, which may heighten the effect of opioids on the brain.

Illicit drug use has typically declined after adulthood, but that may be changing. Admissions of older adults to treatment programs have been slowly but steadily increasing since 2000. Between 2013 and 2015, the number of adults ages 55 and older seeking opioid use disorder treatment increased by almost 54% while the population of that group increased by only about 6%.

Pain Relief

As people age, issues of pain become more prevalent. For one thing, middle-aged Americans are more likely to need a surgical procedure as their bodies age, like joint replacements or hysterectomies. This may introduce them to opioid pain relievers, sometimes for the first time.

As people get to the upper end of middle age, chronic pain also starts to become more of an issue. Long-term results of old injuries, arthritis, and chronic back problems begin to make themselves known as people grow older. For some of the more severe of these issues, doctors will prescribe opioid pain relievers.

Life Changes

As Americans get to the upper end of middle age, they also tend to go through several big life changes. These may include kids leaving home, divorce, retirement, or facing a future of working longer. Some of these social changes may be difficult to deal with and may also be coupled with physical realities of aging that can include heart, lung, and memory problems.

These social and biological changes can be psychologically overwhelming. As psychological forces negatively impact a person, the risk of becoming addicted to opioids increases because the person can associate the relief of pain with psychological or emotional relief as well.

Accidental Misuse

One of the reasons overdose deaths are increasing among older Americans may be that memory issues increase the likelihood of taking too much of an opioid pain reliever.

Psychological stress, plus some of the other factors that we’ve mentioned, can result in confusion, which may only increase with age, especially if memory loss becomes an issue.

It is important to keep in mind that the dreams that many Americans have for their golden years do not always come true. Middle-aged and older people face pressures that are unique to this population and that may likely contribute to the increase in opioid misuse. But knowing what’s at stake may help you be of assistance to aging loved ones in your life.


bottom of page