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Opioid Addiction Rising Among Senior Citizens

By May Wilkerson 12/10/15

There's been an alarming increase of seniors in the ER from opioid abuse.

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America’s epidemic of heroin use and overdose deaths has been widely reported, with an emphasis on the toll it has taken on younger adults. However, older adults are also at risk for opioid abuse and dependence.

Prescription opioid medications like oxycodone and fentanyl can be just as addictive and harmful as street heroin. These drugs are often prescribed to treat conditions common among older adults like lower back pain, fibromyalgia, and arthritis. Though underreported and often unnoticed by caregivers, opioid addiction among senior citizens is on the rise.

"The problem is certainly ubiquitous, and often missed, to be honest," says Dr. Joseph Garbely, medical director of Caron Treatment Centers. "Caretakers oftentimes miss the signs and symptoms of a substance use disorder. Doctors do too, and often aren't asking the questions when seniors are there for their monthly checkups."

There was a 78% rise in the number of ER visits by older adults related to misuse of prescription or illegal drugs between 2006 and 2012, according to a study from Towson Univeristy. About 11% of that misuse was opiates. Of these cases, 53% were ages 65 to 74. "Which means nearly half of the visits occurred among people ages 75 and older," said study author Mary Carter, even though this group is often overlooked in addiction research.

Opioid misuse often coincides with alcohol abuse, but not always, according to Dr. Garbley. He recommends that doctors screen their patients for substance use to assess their risk of opioid abuse. However, some patients develop a dependence even without co-ocurring substance use. Opioids were designed to treat acute pain, not chronic pain, he explains. So when they are prescribed to treat chronic pain, patients may experience a heightened tolerance over time, until they require a higher dosage of the medications.

The potential dangers of opioid use or misuse by seniors include a higher risk of injuries from falls. Also, many seniors take multiple medications, so accidental overdoses are not uncommon. Even just accidentally taking two prescription painkillers, instead of one, could be fatal for someone in their 70s or above.

Middle-aged adults between 45 and 54 have the highest death rates from opioid drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the sharpest rise in hospitalizations for opioid overuse was among Americans ages 45 to 85 and older, with rates skyrocketing more than fivefold between 1993 and 2012, reports the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

If you have an aging family member dealing with chronic pain, experts urge family members to be involved in treatment and to keep an eye out for possible signs of a problem. Potential signs of opioid dependence or misuse may include anxiety, depression, or an increase in injuries or disorientation.

"We all live busy lives, but if possible, go to the appointments with your mom or dad, stepmom or stepdad, and find out what's being prescribed," Garbely says. "Make sure you have an idea—maybe a list of what's being prescribed, and take it to your doctor and say, 'Is this OK?' Get curious, if you will."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.

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