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New Statistics: Prescription Drug Addiction Rising Among Seniors
Americans 65 years of age and older make up less than 15 percent of the population, but they consume more than 30 percent of all prescribed medications. This puts seniors at even greater risk of prescription drug abuse and addiction than their children and grand-children. And according to all indications, it’s going to get worse.
Today there are over 43 million adults aged 65 and older, and by 2040 it will almost double to 80 million. Those future seniors will be aging “baby boomers” – the generation of Americans born between 1946 and 1964. And as we all know, many will be bringing with them a culture of (illegal) recreational drug abuse – far more than any generation in American history.
America’s seniors average 14 prescriptions each – that’s 14 different doctor-ordered drugs being taken every day. It’s difficult to imagine such a life without mixups, side-effects and risky complications. Unlike younger people, today’s seniors aren’t dabbling in drugs to get high – well, not most of them. They’re consuming many potentially addictive prescription medications without adequate supervision to avoid unintentional dependence and addiction.
Just look at our massive intake of addictive prescription opioids. America has 4 percent of the world’s population, but consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioids. An enormous amount of opioid painkillers are handed out to seniors, for everything from post-surgical pain to arthritis pain to chronic back pain or a twinge in the neck playing golf. The same is true for benzodiazepines – antianxiety meds and tranquilizers like Xanax and Valium that are almost as addictive as opioids and often tougher to quit.
So, senior prescription drug stats are going up. On the one hand, IMS Health reports that 55 million opioid prescriptions were written last year for people 65 and over – a 20 percent increase in the past five years and double the growth rate of the senior population.
But the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCAAD) says senior addictions aren’t all from legitimate prescriptions by a long shot. NCAAD says 4.3 million adults aged 50 or older used illegal drugs in the past year – nearly 5 percent of all 50-plus Americans, a large slice of older America.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) says one in every four adults 50 and over used “psychoactive” meds in 2012 – opioids for pain and benzos for anxiety. And the number of seniors abusing or dependent on prescription opioids was close to 336,000 – nearly triple the 132,000 of a decade earlier.
Rising treatment stats also confirm the rise in dependence and addiction. From 2000 to 2008, one out of every 8 people seeking treatment for illegal drugs, prescription drugs and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs was over 50. Admissions for substance abuse for people over 50 increased by 70 percent, while that population only grew 21 percent.
Meanwhile, a recent study by USA TODAY says that “hundreds of thousands of seniors” are misusing prescription drugs because of “a medical community that often is quick to offer narcotic painkillers, anxiety medications and other pharmaceuticals for everything from joint pain to depression.”
Public health officials have been urging reductions in such prescriptions, the paper said. But figures show that “doctors are prescribing the highly addictive drugs at record levels…and the toll on the senior community is enormous.”
Why seniors are at greater risk of prescription drug addiction and abuse
Seniors are at greater risk of addiction and other adverse effects such as falls, overdoses and other accidents for numerous reasons – not just the fact that they take a lot of drugs:
Seniors are seniors – their bodies are aging, they’re starting to feel more tired all the time, they hurt in all sorts of unexpected places, body functions aren’t working the way they used to, and they are worried, anxious, up-tight and very often rather depressed. Current medical practice has a solution, and it’s called “the prescription pad.” Most of the solutions written on that pad are addictive and potentially fatal if wrongly used.
Prescription opioid pain meds can easily become less effective over time, due to what’s called tolerance – more is needed to get the same effect. And that’s a dangerous game to play. But instead of calling the doctor, seniors frequently just reach for more drugs – a direct route to dependence, addiction or a fatal overdose.
Seniors might go to two, three or even four or more different doctors, with different complaints, in just a few weeks or months. Then they forget to tell the doctor about the other drugs they’re taking, prescription or otherwise. And sometimes the doctor neglects to ask, or assumes nothing’s changed since the last visit. The result can be a second or even a third prescription for a similar addictive drug, such as an opioid or benzodiazepine. The patient dutifully takes them all, creates a dependence and winds up an addict. Or in a coma, or dead.
Seniors are subject to serious cognitive decline and forgetfulness. They start forgetting if, or when, they took their last pain pill or antianxiety meds. So they take them again, risking overdose. Done habitually, it could lead to dependence.
As bodies age, the capacity for processing medications is reduced. They aren’t getting eliminated as rapidly as in a younger body and instead build up in the system, inviting dependence, addiction or overdose.
Prescription drugs can also just create havoc with older livers and kidneys and brains and digestive tracts – in other words, make people sicker than they were before they started taking the drugs. And too often, they just get another prescription to treat the side effects of the first one. It goes around and around. Doctors who do this aren’t paying attention.
Seniors are especially vulnerable to serious drug-related toxic events that arise from mixing one drug with another – opioids with alcohol, for example. Care and attention by doctors are required to avoid toxic combinations. Mixed-drug effects are not gateways to addiction, but are more dangerous among seniors.
It certainly appears that not enough is being done to prevent addiction and other serious drug-related events among seniors, judging by the rising statistics. Certainly, the medical profession needs to control its use of the proverbial prescription pad – that part’s definitely out of control.
But most of these accidents, dependencies and addictions could be prevented if care-givers -doctors and nurses down to family and friends – paid better attention to what their senior patients, moms, dads, grandparents and friends are really doing – not what they say they’re doing – about their many aches, pains, problems and especially their prescriptions.
Here at Novus, we’ve been dealing with the increase in dependencies and addictions among older patients. Because we are a medical detox clinic with innovative medical detox protocols and 24/7 medical care, we are better able to help senior patients more safely and effectively than the typical cookie-cutter detox facilities.
If you or someone you care about is a senior in trouble with prescription drugs or any substance, please call Novus any time. We are always here to help.
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