The public is quickly learning that drug abuse goes beyond the illegal substances that are purchased on the street. Abuse of drugs extends to the prescription medications sitting in many medicine cabinets.
While teenagers and young adults may be the first to be stereotyped as prescription drug abusers, seniors may have unwittingly become mixed up in one of the most misused prescription classes: opioid pain relievers.
The problem of opioid abuse has been a growing issue for years. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates 2.1 million people in the United States suffer from substance abuse of opioid pain relievers. Older patients are increasingly and repeatedly prescribed opioids to address chronic pain from arthritis, cancer and other problems that become more apparent as people age.
Data from U.S. Medicare recipients found that, in 2011, roughly 15% of seniors were prescribed an opioid after being discharged from the hospital. When followed up on three months later, 42% were still taking the medication. Fast forward to 2015, and almost one-third of all Medicare patients were prescribed opioid painkillers by their physicians, says AARP. The Canadian Institute for Health Information says adults between the ages of 45 and 64 and seniors age 65 and older had the highest rates of hospitalizations due to opioid poisoning over the past 10 years.
AARP also indicates nearly three million Americans age 50 or older have started to take painkillers for reasons beyond what their doctors prescribed. Experts from the Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing warn that dependence on opioids can set in after just a few days. Discomfort and side effects can occur when the pills are stopped. Opioids can decrease pain at first, but many people find they can be less effective over time. As a result, patients need to take greater amounts. Although many people can take opioids in small doses for short periods of time without problems, many find themselves overcome by a troubling addiction. Some doctors prefer not to use opioids as a first line of treatment for chronic pain.
Another possible risk of opioids among seniors is that the medication can cause disorientation that may lead to falls and fractures. The senior care resource A Place for Mom also says that prescription narcotics may increase risk of respiratory arrest. What’s more, an older body may not absorb and filter medicines as effectively as younger bodies can. This means that older adults might become addicted to or have side effects from a prescription drug at a lower dose.
Seniors concerned about opioids can discuss other options with their doctors, such as nonopioid medications and alternative therapies for pain management, like massage or acupuncture. If opioids are prescribed, ask for the lowest dose and don’t exceed the time frame for taking the medicine. Only take the pills when absolutely necessary, and never mix opioids with alcohol or other substances.