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Signs of Opioid Addiction in the Elderly: What You Should Know

By WebMD Connect to Care Staff
Here’s how to spot opioid addiction symptoms in an elderly loved one.

If you have an older loved one who takes an opioid medication, you might wonder if they’re using it properly. These prescription painkillers can be addictive. They can also raise your risk for using heroin (which is an illegal opioid), according to the 2018 “Prescription Opioids and Heroin Research Report” from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Why Seniors Are at Risk

It could be due in part to how often doctors prescribe opioids to senior citizens.

From 1996 to 2010, there was a significant increase in the number of opioid prescriptions given to older people, according to a 2018 article in the Psychiatric Times entitled “Opioid Use in the Elderly.” The report also says that 35% of people over 50 years old who had ongoing pain said they’d misused their prescription opioids in the past month. Misusing certain prescription drugs—which means not following your doctor’s instructions on how to safely take them—can raise your risk for addiction, according to a 2020 article from MedlinePlus entitled “Prescription Drug Misuse.”

A 2020 study in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report found that between 2008 and 2018, opioid prescription fill rates were highest among people 65 and older. What’s more, a 2018 report from the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that on average, almost 4 million senior citizens filled four or more opioid prescriptions in 2015 and 2016. Close to 10 million filled at least one during that timespan. 

Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Addiction in Seniors

Antonello Bonci, MD, founder and executive chairman of Global Institutes on Addictions Miami, tells WebMD Connect to Care that these are signs and symptoms of opioid misuse and addiction in the elderly:

  • Declining energy
  • Memory and emotional changes
  • Irritability
  • Sadness and depression
  • Changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • Increasing isolation
  • Less social involvement
  • Changes in hygiene
  • Changes in weight
  • Less contact with family
  • Missing appointments

“Signs of addiction can be easily overlooked in the elderly because very often, subtle symptoms can mimic other medical disorders, such as depression, major illnesses, diabetes, or dementia,” Bonci says. 

“Accidental overdoses in the elderly have risen dramatically in recent years, and the number of opiate-related deaths is significantly higher in the older population. This is due to a number of issues,” Bonci says. “Someone who is older metabolizes medications very differently than someone young. Chronic medical problems may play a role as well. In general, opiates, benzodiazepines, and alcohol are the most abused substances in the elderly population, and the combination of a prescribed medication with other medications and/or alcohol can prove deadly.”

Get Help Now

If you or a loved one is struggling with opioid addiction, WebMD Connect to Care Advisors are standing by to help.

Treatment & Resources for Opioid Addiction