Silent epidemic: Senate report reveals alarming surge in opioid deaths among older Americans

WASHINGTON – A newly-released Senate report urgently brings attention to a concerning surge in deaths among older Americans linked to synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl. Titled “The Silent Epidemic: Fentanyl and Older Americans,” the report reveals a fourfold increase in overdose deaths among older Americans over the last two decades.

“Fentanyl and other drugs have lowered American life expectancy. They increasingly kill older Americans while limiting younger Americans’ chances to grow old,” Senator Mike Braun, R-Ind., who authored the report, said in a statement.

Braun is a ranking member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging, which also met on Thursday to address the dangerous substance use trend among older Americans. Stanford University Professor Keith Humphreys, providing testimony, highlighted a 60% increase in the rate of drug-involved suicides among seniors, coupled with an 83% surge in unintentional overdose deaths in 2021, predominantly involving illicit drugs like fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine.

“There are some important demographic differences across overdose deaths. Most older Americans who die of intentional drug overdose are white women. In contrast, most who die from unintentional overdoses are men (71%) with significant overrepresentation of African-Americans,” said Humphreys.

Humphreys cited several factors contributing to the increase in senior overdoses, including the growing number of pharmaceutical products, potential adverse drug interactions, and changing drug tolerance with age. He emphasized the impact of substance use patterns carried through generations, highlighting that drug use among older Americans may escalate as Baby Boomers, who once attended Woodstock, move into retirement.

“The expansion of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine, xylazine, and even more so fentanyl has increased the risk of overdose among individuals who use illicit drugs,” said Humphreys. “This is
true even of those individuals who have long experience with drugs such as cocaine and heroin, some of whom may be exposed to fentanyl without their knowledge.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a record 112,000 Americans have died from fentanyl poisoning and drug overdoses over the latest 12 month reporting period.