The rate of overdose deaths among people age 65 and older quadrupled over the 20-year period starting in 2002, according to a new study co-authored by UCLA Health’s Chelsea Shover.

The findings suggest a need for better public health policies aimed at mental health and substance use disorders.

The deaths stemmed from both suicides and accidental overdoses, with nearly three-fourths of the unintended fatalities involving illicit drugs such as synthetic opioids like fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines.  Prescription opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, antiepileptics and sedatives were used in 67% of intentional overdoses.

“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 lifespan,” said Shover, a co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of medicine in the division of general internal medicine and health services research at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Updating Medicare to cover evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders is crucial, as is providing harm reduction supplies such as naloxone to older adults.”

The study, which was published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that fatal overdoses quadrupled to 6,702 (12 per 100,000) in 2021, from 1,060 in 2002 (3 per 100,000 population). Keith Humphreys of Stanford University and Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System is the paper’s other co-author.

Read the full news release on the UCLA Health website.