Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly

Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly

Thanks to a greater understanding of many illnesses, more drugs available for treatment, and the improved diagnostic procedures in healthcare, the elderly are taking many more prescriptions today than ever before. Although this means they have more options for living a healthy, comfortable, and longer life, there are many negative connotations that go along with these advances in medicine. One of these is that the availability of all these medications increases the risk for prescription drug abuse in the elderly.

Almost 30% of those individuals between the ages of 57 and 85 use a minimum of five prescription drugs. This group of individuals has the lowest compliance rate when it comes to following instructions for their prescription drug us. This makes them especially vulnerable. Considering the large number of seniors in the U.S. today, these facts indicate a high potential for complications related to prescription drug abuse in the elderly. In fact, nearly 13 percent of the population in the United States is 65 years old or older.

Differences in Senior Drug Abuse

When most of us picture drug abuse in our minds, we think of young people using street drugs recreationally in a foolish attempt to get high. The idea of prescription drug abuse in the elderly is usually the furthest thing from our minds. When seniors abuse prescription drugs or – even worse – become addicted to them, it’s not usually because they set out to abuse their medication.

Instead, prescription drug abuse in the elderly is often due to the fact that they don’t understand the potential risks of the medications they are taking. They don’t always realize that many drugs have the potential to interact with other medications as well as non-prescription treatments. As a result, there has been a phenomenal increase in the number of elderly patients who need intervention and treatment for drug abuse. They’ve accidentally become addicted to their prescription medications – and many don’t even realize it’s happened.

Where the Problem Begins

It’s no secret that we have a lot more health problems as we get older. Many seniors will develop health conditions that require long-term medication such as hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and numerous other conditions. At the same time, they may develop other health conditions that require additional short-term treatment. In many cases, these additional medications are prescribed by a different doctor who is not their primary care physician.

Another problem experienced by the elderly is their high use of over-the-counter medications. They are often completely unaware that what seems like a harmless medication they bought at the store can be dangerous when taken along with their other prescriptions.

Elderly individuals also have a greater risk for problems due to changes in their metabolism. These changes make them more susceptible to adverse medication reactions than individuals who are younger. Also, if they consume any alcohol it can intensify the effects of some types of drugs. It can also affect how they react to various medications. With regards to prescription drug abuse in the elderly, the majority who become addicted to their medications don’t do so intentionally. Whether abuse or addiction occurs also depends on other factors, including their overall physical and emotional health as well as the types of medications prescribed for them.

In addition to the normal aches and pains associated with aging, many elderly also have more issues with pain. This may be due to more frequent falls, arthritis, chronic back pain, and so on. Potent pain medications are often prescribed to give them much needed relief. Vicodin and other prescription painkillers provide fast relief which is one of the reasons so many people become dependent on them.

Another problem that frequently occurs in the elderly is insomnia. Benzodiazepines, which are often prescribed for anxiety disorders, can be sedating. The sedating effect, along with the sense of calm they quickly provide, makes them effective for sleep problems. Unfortunately, medications in this category, such as Ativan and Xanax, are highly addictive. They are supposed to be used for only a short period of time.

It’s no surprise that prescription drug abuse in the elderly often involves pain medications and benzodiazepines.

Timing is Everything

If every elderly person who took prescription medications did so according to their doctor’s instructions, there would be little incidence of abuse or addiction. However, seniors are much less likely to do this than younger individuals. This may be due to forgetfulness, confusion, disliking the medication due to side effects, or a variety of other issues that are much more common with seniors. Certain types of medication can cause confusion when they are taken in excess, which leads to more problems with inaccurate dosing.

When elderly individuals take pain medication, they may rely too heavily on their pain symptoms as a guide to when their next dose is due rather than keeping track of when it was last administered. Since many types of pain medication are highly addictive, this can quickly become a problem. Once they develop a tolerance, they need more of the drug to alleviate their pain. Some may also ascribe to the philosophy that “if some is good, more is better”, which also contributes to prescription drug abuse in the elderly population.

Seniors make up only about 13% of the population, but they take nearly one-third of all the medication that is prescribed by health care professionals. Not only that, many of the drugs prescribed to this age group have a high potential for addiction.

Overlooking the Warning Signs

Many people aren’t aware of the growing problem of prescription drug abuse in the elderly. They may also ignore the warning signs in their loved ones. Since many elderly individuals have problems with forgetfulness and agitation – symptoms that are often caused by drug abuse – they may be dismissed as normal. The effects of prescription drugs may also cause unsteadiness, leading to falls and other accidents – problems that, again, may be disregarded as normal due to age. Sadly, serious injuries may result which could have been prevented had the warning signs been heeded.

The effects of prescription drug abuse in the elderly are often experienced more easily and more intensely than in those who are younger. This is because the metabolism of elderly individuals is slower and their organs function less efficiently. This may result in more serious side effects with much lower concentrations of various medications than needed for the same response in younger people.

The Most Commonly Abused Prescription Drugs

Prescription drug abuse in the elderly can occur with many different medications. However, not all are addictive. The drugs that cause the greatest risk for elderly individuals fall into two categories:

  • Opioids – These are the most frequently abused prescription drugs by elderly individuals as well as the younger population. They are prescribed to relieve pain. OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin fit in this category. Their ability to boost dopamine levels and cause a feeling of euphoria makes them highly addictive. Their ability to slow down respiration is one of the characteristics that makes them so dangerous.
  • Benzodiazepines – These are drugs prescribed for anxiety and insomnia. They include Klonopin, Xanax, Valium, and Ativan. They produce a sense of calm quite quickly. Some people also experience euphoria as well.

Perhaps the greatest reason that prescription drug abuse in the elderly is a growing problem is because there is no single solution that works in every case. Those seniors who are left on their own can’t be monitored, making it especially difficult to notice a problem. However, all elderly individuals are vulnerable. Family members, friends, nursing home and assisted living staff, and health care professionals all need to be educated about the problem of prescription drug abuse in the elderly population.

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