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Opioid pills

Tablets of hydrocodone bitartrate and acetaminophen — hydrocodone is an opioid painkiller — are among the drugs for which doctors have to check a statewide database of drugs dispensed before writing prescriptions.

WISCONSIN DELLS — One in six opioid overdose deaths in Wisconsin in 2016 were among people age 55 or older, a state health official said Friday at the Wisconsin Healthy Aging Summit.

Overdose deaths from heroin are highest in people in their 20s, and deaths from prescription opioids peak among people in their 30s.

But older adults are an overlooked group that presents special challenges in combating opioid abuse, such as social isolation and symptoms of addiction mimicking dementia, said Paul Krupski, director of opioid initiatives for the state Department of Health Services.

“Like anyone else, older adults that use prescription drugs over a long period of time risk the possibility of developing an opioid use disorder,” Krupski said.

“In this population, addiction can be very difficult to identify,” he said. “There may be nobody there ... to notice any signs or symptoms.”

In 2016, 145 older adults died from opioid overdoses, nearly 17 percent of the state’s 878 deaths from opioids that year, Krupski said.

Ambulances transported people 55 and older for suspected opioid overdoses nearly 1,000 times last year, he said. The year before, more than 4,000 residents that age were hospitalized for opioid dependence or poisoning, he said.

It can be difficult for doctors, caregivers and family members to detect opioid addiction in older adults because the symptoms can resemble dementia, delirium or depression, Krupski said.

Social isolation, which can prevent people from getting help, can be exacerbated by opioid abuse because people become embarrassed by their addiction, he said.

Opioids can have a stronger impact on older adults because they metabolize drugs differently, and mixing opioids with alcohol or other medications increases the risk of falls, he said.

Krupski said visual or cognitive impairment can cause seniors to misunderstand prescriptions and repeat or forget doses of opioid pain medication.

Doctors should avoid prescribing opioids for chronic pain, especially to older adults, he said.

Synthetic opioids, such as illicit forms of fentanyl, are becoming a greater concern nationwide and in Wisconsin, especially in Milwaukee County, Krupski said.

In 2015, the county had 30 deaths from such drugs among people of all ages. In 2016, it had 103.

Meanwhile, the city of Madison had 109 heroin overdoses from January to May, including five suspected deaths from heroin in May, Police Chief Mike Koval said Friday. That compares to 87 overdoses the same period last year, and no such deaths last May, Koval said.

The aging summit was organized by the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, a Madison-based nonprofit that disseminates evidence-based healthy aging programs around the state.

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.