Advocates and officials in New Jersey have their eyes on a disturbing trend within an already depressing opioid epidemic.

Seniors have never really had the spotlight during the nation's years-long battle with a growing dependence on narcotics, but statistics suggest that the number of overdoses has skyrocketed among the 55-and-older demographic.

"Whether you're 17 or 70, you can become dependent on opiates in a very short period of time, in less than five days," said Angelo Valente, executive director of the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.

New Jersey 55+ drug overdose statistics

Dozens of Prescription Pill Bottles
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The most recent alarming numbers were presented Thursday during a webinar hosted by the Partnership and the New Jersey Attorney General's Office.

Through the third quarter, individuals aged 55 and older have accounted for about a third of this year's drug-related deaths in New Jersey, according to data from the New Jersey Office of the Chief State Medical Examiner. Seniors represented about 20% of the tally in 2018, and 16% in 2015.

Nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths from drug overdoses among seniors more than tripled between 2000 and 2020. Officials also noted a surge in deaths among seniors related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.

Valente noted that older residents may have easier access to opioid prescriptions, given a higher frequency of operations, and diagnoses of pain. And their age does not exempt them from being dependent on the pain relievers.

"Unfortunately, opioid dependency can begin at any age, and it only takes five days of an opiate for dependency to begin and set in," Valente said.

The Partnership is currently crafting an education campaign that specifically targets the opioid dependency risk among seniors.

"The key is that we have to look at alternatives to opiates. We have to have this discussion with our physicians," Valente said.

Drug overdoses claim thousands of lives on a yearly basis in the Garden State. Authorities believe they've made a sizeable dent in the death count for 2022 — the total may be under 2,900 for the first time since 2017.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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