Health & Wellness

The Opioid Crisis Is Hitting Older Adults

Almost a third of the opioid-related deaths in Canada in 2017 were among people 50 or older


By Katrina Caruso


One out of every two Canadians was prescribed opioids in 2015—half of us—so it’s hardly surprising that Canada has become the second-biggest consumer of the addictive prescription medication. And older Canadians are more likely to be prescribed these medications for pain relief than are younger Canadians.

In August 2018, a report from the Toronto-based National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly showed that nearly 30% of the deaths from opioids in 2017 occurred among people 50 or older, and Canadians 65 or older were the group most hospitalized (25%) due to opioid poisoning. Their hospital stays were also eight days longer than the average. Accidental poisoning accounted for 55% of all the opioid-related hospitalizations in seniors.

Most of the complications and accidental toxicity involved morphine, hydromorphone, and the fentanyl patch. The number of opioid-related hospital stays may be much higher if other factors are considered: a lot of seniors’ falls may be directly related to their use of painkillers, which can affect balance and cognitive function.

While older people are getting more opioids than younger patients, they are less able to handle the drugs—as the body ages, opioid tolerance can decline, and a dosage that was acceptable at age 50 can lead to toxicity at 60.

Especially worrisome is the fact that 33% of the deaths related to opioids in older Canadians were intentional—mostly men.

Last year, we reported that overprescription plays an important role in the opioid crisis, with patients being prescribed on average 40 pills per painkiller prescription, far more than they would take. As well, it has been shown that opioids are not a good choice for long-term, chronic pain. Fortunately, some new alternatives are showing good results to combat pain, particularly topical creams.

To learn more, check out Wendy Haaf’s primer on pain medication here.

Photo: iStock/Moussa81.