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Addicts, overdose victims skew older

| Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, 11:20 a.m.

More older adults in Westmoreland County are using heroin and are dying from overdoses involving a combination of drugs, according to the Coroner's Office.

Of the 86 overdose victims in 2013, nearly 70 percent were between ages 41 and 70, Coroner Ken Bacha said. The number is a significant jump from 2012, when 59 percent of the 78 deaths were in that age group, and 2011, when the percentage was 55.

In the majority of cases, death resulted from a combination of drugs, the coroner's analysis shows. And some smaller communities had more overdose deaths than those with high populations.

“This is sad,” said Dr. Neil Capretto, medical director of Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Beaver County. “For the first time, we're seeing on a regular basis new heroin users over the age of 50.”

Statistics show both addiction and fatal overdoses among people middle-aged or older is widespread:

• Allegheny County has reported higher addiction rates in users ages 50 to 60, Capretto said.

• The number of Americans ages 55 and older treated in emergency rooms for overdoses tripled between 2004 and 2011, the Drug Abuse Warning Network reports.

• Drug overdoses kill more people each year than auto accidents in the 25-to-64 age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It's not just happening to 20-year-olds,” said Holly Martin, a psychologist and chief operating officer for the Greenbriar Treatment Center, which has an outpatient center in New Kensington.

“We have definitely seen older addicts for some reason,” said New Kensington police Chief Tom Klawinski.

Capretto said the growing numbers in that demographic led Gateway to create a special unit to treat older addicts. “It's a very busy unit,” he said.

Typically, older addicts' drug problems are rooted in legitimate medical issues, not recreational drug use, experts said.

Older people who are treated for medical ailments, chronic pain or post-surgical pain can become addicted to powerful prescription painkillers.

Most of the addiction Greenbrier treats starts with prescription drug abuse, Martin said. In 2005, about 4 percent of the addicts seeking treatment were hooked on opiates. Last year, about 60 percent of the patients were addicted to oxycodone and other powerful painkillers.

When their physicians stop prescribing the drugs, some turn to buying opiates on the street, then sometimes switch to heroin because it's cheaper. While a 30 milligram OxyContin tablet may cost $30 on the street, a stamp bag of heroin costs between $6 and $10 in the region, authorities said.

“They are not only addicted, but physically dependent,” Martin said. “Some become addicted because their physician starts limiting the pills. Some go through someone else's medicine chest, or they switch to heroin. We're seeing this progression over and over and over again.”

Any other medications an addict is taking complicate the reaction to street drugs, Capretto said.

“Older bodies just can't handle drugs as well as a younger person,” he said. “The margin for error is smaller as we age.”

The coroner's annual report also shows:

• Hempfield, Westmoreland's largest municipality with more than 43,000 people, led the county with 12 overdose deaths.

• New Kensington, population nearly 13,000, had seven.

• The highest per capital number was in South Huntingdon, where there were six fatalities and only about 6,100 residents.

The statistics are startling, Bacha said.

“I'm originally from Southwest Greensburg, and the borough had the same number of overdoses as the cities of Greensburg and Arnold,” he said.

Heroin was not the predominant drug in the overdoses.

The coroner said 86 percent of the deaths were caused by a combination of drugs. Only 30 percent were linked to heroin, but half the victims had Xanax, Valium or other benzodiazepines, in addition to anti-depressants, in their systems.

Arnold has averaged three overdose deaths a year for some time, said police Chief Willie Weber.

“We probably would have had more, but someone calls EMS and they were given Narcan. Otherwise, our death rate would have been higher,” Weber said.

Narcan, or naloxone hydrochloride, is used to treat overdoses by reversing the effects of opioids, such as respiratory failure.

Heroin use is prevalent not just in cities like New Kensington, but everywhere — even in communities without overdoses, Klawinski said.

“If you think that you don't have heroin in your town, then you have your head in the sand,” he said.

Richard Gazarik and Chuck Biedka are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Gazarik can be reached at 724-830-6292 or at Biedka can be reached at 724-226-4711 or

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