A grandmother reaching for prescription pills from her medicine cabinet is not the image most people would associate with drug addiction. Although the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that young adults misuse prescription and illicit drugs more frequently than older generations, painkiller abuse has soared among those over 65.
According to a 2017 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), twice as many older adults misused opioids in 2014 than in 2002. Opioid abuse among seniors is rising in part because many primary care doctors are over-prescribing medications such as OxyContin and Vicodin.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that of the 40 million Americans who enrolled in Medicare Part D in 2016, one-third were prescribed opioids and many were prescribed more than the recommended dosage.
Another factor in this phenomenon is that older adults are increasingly turning to prescription opioids to treat chronic pain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that 75% of Americans aged 65 and older struggle with multiple chronic conditions, including diabetes and arthritis. For these individuals, self-medicating with opioids frequently or in higher doses than recommended to manage pain can be tempting, and doing so increases the risk of overdose and opioid use disorder.
“Taking opioids to manage ongoing health issues can be problematic because these potent medications are most often intended for short-term use,” said Amy Sedgwick, Director of Clinical Operations at Mountainside Treatment Center, which has facilities in Wilton, Canaan, and Chappaqua, N.Y. “Opioid addiction among older adults can be especially challenging to recognize because people over 65 often struggle with comorbidities, such as dementia and depression, that conceal some of the warning signs, including confusion or mood changes.”
Despite the additional barriers to addiction treatment that older generations may face, seniors can still overcome opioid misuse, Sedgwick said. Older adults can participate in support groups designed with their demographic in mind, allowing them to socialize and learn from peers who struggle with similar issues. They should also communicate any reservations about prescription drug use or side effects with a primary care doctor or a specialist, who may be able to prescribe a lower-dose painkiller or offer an even safer solution.
“Anyone who is concerned about their own use or a loved one’s should speak with a doctor about non-opioid alternatives before taking prescription painkillers,” Sedgwick said. “Older adults struggling with addiction can still benefit from a traditional inpatient or outpatient program. Treatment services that incorporate wellness activities such as acupuncture and yoga can be particularly valuable because they encourage total well-being, and in some cases, alleviate chronic pain naturally.”
Lauren Fabrizio is with Mountainside Treatment Center.