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Prescription Drug Misuse Among Seniors an "Emerging Epidemic"

Hundreds of thousands of seniors are misusing prescription drugs thanks to being overprescribed by a medicate-first approach by doctors.



By Victoria Kim


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On Wednesday, USA Today published a report on the growing epidemic of seniors in the U.S. who are misusing prescription medications. USA Today studied data from an array of federal agencies and private firms and found that this trend is growing, and not without a slew of serious consequences.

The growing misuse of prescription drugs - especially opioid pain relievers and benzodiazepines, anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium - is fueled by the fact that seniors are a segment of the population that is prescribed more drugs than any other, as well as the medical community’s medicate-first approach to treating them for everything from joint pain to depression.

“There’s a growing group of seniors, they have pain, they have anxiety … and a lot of (doctors) have one thing in their tool box - a prescription pad,” said Mel Pohl, medical director at the Las Vegas Recovery Center, which treats seniors for pain and drug dependence. “The doctor wants to make their life better, so they start on the meds.” 

Hundreds of thousands of American seniors are misusing prescription drugs. In 2012, the average number of seniors misusing - defined as using without a prescription or not as prescribed - or dependent on prescription pain relievers in the past year rose to an estimated 336,000 up from 132,000 just a decade earlier. It doesn’t help that older brains and bodies are more vulnerable to drug complications. From 2007 to 2011, annual emergency room visits by people 65 and older for prescription drug misuse rose more than 50 percent to more than 94,000 a year. From 1999 to 2010, overdose deaths among those 55 and older, regardless of drug type, nearly tripled to 9.4 fatalities per 100,000 people.

Wilson Compton, a psychiatrist and deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse dubbed prescription drug misuse by seniors an “emerging epidemic” and emphasized that both doctors and patients should be better educated on the risks of these drugs. It’s been demonstrated by multiple studies that opioids lose their effectiveness as patients build tolerance, and have little value as long-term medication for managing chronic pain. The same goes for anxiety medications such as Valium.

“Over time, patients build up a tolerance or suffer more pain and they ask for more medication,” Pohl said. “And without anyone necessarily realizing, it begins a downward spiral with horrible consequences.”

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