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The Silent Epidemic: Drug Abuse Among The Elderly

By David Konow 08/11/16

Elderly drug abuse is a growing trend that often goes unreported and untreated due to insurance constraints, overprescribing and stigma.

The Silent Epidemic: Drug Abuse Among The Elderly

With so many elderly people relying on a variety of medicines and painkillers, there’s inevitably a high risk of drug abuse and addiction among senior citizens.

Last week, a 64-year-old resident of a rest home in Indiana overdosed on heroin. The woman got the drug from another resident who told her to “take a little,” and was later found on the floor of her room, bewildered and bleeding from her nose. According to the South Bend Tribune, the woman had previously been caught trying to steal painkillers from the facility.

While one Indiana rehab told the Tribune that its patients do skew younger, they do get calls from people in their sixties seeking help. A report last year from the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation said that drug abuse among the elderly is “one of the fastest growing health problems in this country.” According to recent statistics, 17% of people age 60 or older are struggling with addiction, and that number could double by 2020.

In June, the Associated Press reported that close to a third of patients on Medicare received at least one opioid prescription in 2015. Frederic Blow, who is in charge of addiction research at the University of Michigan medical school, said the level of seniors using opioids is “astounding,” adding, “it’s not just a young person’s problem.” Among the painkillers seniors on Medicare were prone to abusing were OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and fentanyl, along with their generic alternatives.

There's also the issue of the underreporting of elderly drug overdose deaths. According to Dr. Andrew Kolodny, who runs a New York-based group of addiction treatment facilities, due to the advanced age of the deceased, the causes of many of these possible overdoses are written off as age-related on death certificates. 

According to a study from Stanford University published in July, seniors have “among the highest and most rapidly growing prevalence of opioid use disorder.” More than six out of every 1,000 Medicare patients has an opioid problem. This is a terrible double-edged sword for seniors, as Medicare won’t cover most addiction treatment. 

As one doctor lamented, “The opioid frenzy is getting so much attention that it affects patients and families. Many are afraid to take painkillers even when they are recommended. We’ve gone from a concern that we’re undertreating pain to the other extreme.” 

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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