Rising Drug Overdose Deaths Among Seniors Shed Light on Expansion of Addiction Crisis to America’s Elderly

Old man addiction problem

When most people think of drug addicts or alcoholics, they usually imagine an adult between the ages of 20 and 50. They rarely think of senior citizens, which leads to this demographic being underserved by the medical community when it comes to addiction. The stark misconception that addiction does not affect older adults directly contradicts new findings showing fatal overdoses among Americans 65 and older quadrupling in recent years.

What the Findings Show

A team of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine sought to uncover how America’s addiction epidemic has affected older adults. Unfortunately, their findings exceeded even the most dire predictions.

The researchers examined overdose death reports for senior citizens from 2002 to 2021 using a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention database. They found that fatal overdoses quadrupled from 1,060 in 2002 (3 per 100,000) to 6,702 in 2021, (12 per 100,000); in 2002, 1,060 senior citizens died from overdoses, but in 2021, 6,702 seniors lost their lives to overdoses. In fact, by 2021, one in every 370 senior citizen deaths was caused by drugs. More than half of them (57%) were caused by opioids. The vast majority (83%) were unintentional overdoses.

About 75% of the seniors who died from accidental drug overdoses were using illicit drugs, including synthetic opioids, fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. In 67% of the intentional overdoses, seniors were using prescription opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, sedatives, and anti-epileptics (anti-seizure drugs). That suggests addiction to illicit substances is the leading cause of drug-related deaths within the senior citizen demographic.

Alcohol also played a role in fatal overdoses, but not on the same scale as drugs. While seniors in 2021 died from drug overdoses at a rate of 3 per 100,000, the alcohol-related death rate was 0.5 per 100,000.

The researchers pointed out that, even though fatal drug encounters among seniors are still less common than among younger Americans, a quadrupling in the rate of deaths suggests an imminent crisis within this demographic. “The dramatic rise in overdose fatalities among adults over 65 years of age in the past two decades underscores how important it is for clinicians and policymakers to think of overdose as a problem across the life span,” said study coauthor Chelsea Shover, assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine. Shover and her colleagues showed that public health efforts to address drug use in America must include all age brackets, not just middle-aged and young adults.

Substance Abuse Among Senior Citizens and Risk Factors for Addiction

The National Institute on Drug Abuse published research highlighting how, though drug use typically declines after young adulthood, at least one million American seniors are addicted to drugs, per 2018 data. And the problem seems to be getting worse. About 3.4% of addiction treatment center admissions in 2000 were for elderly adults. That percentage more than doubled to 7% in 2012.

Old woman taken by paramedics, overdose

NIDA hypothesized that aging could “possibly lead to social and physical changes that may increase vulnerability to substance misuse.” Research also suggests that older adults metabolize substances more slowly, and their brains may be more sensitive to drugs. NIDA also hypothesized that older adults might be more likely to experience mood disorders, lung and heart health problems, and memory loss issues in connection to or as a result of substance abuse.

Declining physical and mental health, decreased mobility, increasing health conditions, reduced quality of life, and transitions out of the workforce and into retirement can all lead senior citizens to use drugs as a coping mechanism. NIDA also lists additional risk factors for addiction that seniors may face, like chronic pain from injuries or medical conditions; physical disabilities; undesirable or unwanted transitions in living or care situations; loss of loved ones, family members, or spouses; forced retirement or unwanted changes in income; overall poor health status; chronic illness due to aging; and having to take several medications for health issues.

Though elderly Americans have been little more than an afterthought in public health policy considerations regarding addiction, it seems America’s drug crisis has severely impacted this demographic.

Drug Treatment Is a Must for Those Addicted

Though America’s drug addiction epidemic is direly impacting the nation’s senior citizens, residential addiction rehab programs provide the tools recovering addicts need to overcome addiction and face life without resorting to mind-altering substances.

Aging Americans who have fallen prey to drug or alcohol abuse need resources, tools, support, healthy coping strategies, and qualified, evidence-based care to help them tackle the underlying issues that led them to use drugs and alcohol in the first place. If you have an aging relative addicted to mind-altering substances, help them find and enter a quality treatment center as soon as possible.


  • ScienceDaily. “Drug Overdose Fatalities Among U.S. Older Adults Has Quadrupled Over 20 Years, Research Finds.” Science Daily, 2023. sciencedaily.com
  • JAMA. “Twenty-Year Trends in Drug Overdose Fatalities Among Older Adults in the U.S.” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2023. jamanetwork.com
  • USNews. “Fatal Drug O.D.s Among U.S. Seniors Have Quadrupled in 20 Years.” U.S. News, 2023. usnews.com
  • NIDA. “Substance Use in Older Adults DrugFacts.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2023. nida.nih.gov



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.