The Lead

‘Vulnerable’ and ‘overlooked’, state officials highlight need to address substance use disorder in older adults

By: - January 27, 2022 5:05 pm

Special Assistant to the Department of Drugs and Alcohol Program Secretary Steve Ross speaks during a press conference, which discussed risk factors, race and ethnic disparities, and resources for older Pennsylvanians living with substance use disorder, inside the Capitol Media Center on Thursday, January 27, 2022.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, a top official at the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs said Pennsylvania “needs to do better” by older Pennsylvanians with substance use disorder. 

The official, Steve Ross, a special assistant to DDAP secretary Jen Smith, said adults age 55 and older are a “vulnerable” and “overlooked” demographic.

Older adults “are underdiagnosed when it comes to the disease of addiction” because they tend to take more medication than other age groups and because SUD symptoms in older adults are similar to those of other medical conditions, he said. 

Between 1999 and 2019, the United States saw a tenfold increase in the number of overdose deaths among residents age 55 or older, resulting in 79,893 overdose deaths among the older adult population over the same period, according to a recent study from the Jama Network Open medical journal. 

While overdose deaths have increased among all age groups and demographics in recent years, the study also found that the opioid overdose fatality rate among non-Hispanic Black men 55 years or older was four times greater than the overall opioid overdose fatality rate for persons of the same age.

As of Thursday, DDAP reports that since 2019, more than 6,300 older adults in Pennsylvania are in substance use disorder treatments. Of those, 60 percent were admitted for alcohol use and 25 percent were admitted for opioid use disorder. 

“We must better promote age-specific treatment programs that meet the needs of this vulnerable and overlooked population,” Ross said. “Recovery is possible, no matter what your age.”

DDAP said some signs of substance use disorder in older adults include:

  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Irritability, sadness, and depression
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to be alone often
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Losing touch with loved ones
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

“No matter what your age is, it’s never too late to reach out for help,” Ross said, adding that older adults respond to treatment just as well as other age groups. 

Resources on substance use disorder can be found on the DDAP website. 

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.

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