With high rates of prescriptions for medical conditions and an aging baby-boomer population, seniors are at an increasing risk of prescription drug abuse and overdose.
An alarming number of senior citizens are dying from prescription narcotic overdose as prescription drug abuse continues to ravage the U.S.
Opioids, which account for 80 percent of the word’s consumption of pain killers, remain the leading cause of prescription drug overdoses in the United States. More than 16,000 Americans died of opioid overdose in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The American elderly population has been largely effected by opioid and other prescription drug use and often has the greatest access to getting prescription narcotics.
“The elderly take more prescriptions than other people partly because they have more (medical) conditions,” Leonard Paulozzi, a CDC epidemiologist specializing in drug-related injury, told USA Today in 2014.
According to Andrew Kolodny, the director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, senior citizens, a group more likely to visit doctors for pain and aches than younger individuals, have been overprescribed medications like oxycodone since pharmaceutical companies began pushing for physicians to use them as a way to treat physical ailments. Addiction to these prescription drugs is almost effortless, as seniors begin to include opioids in their daily medication regimen.
“For the vast majority of people who might be suffering with chronic pain, opioids are a lousy option,” said Kolodny in an interview with Al Jazeera America. “They’re on it around the clock. Within a week, you’ve made your patient physiologically dependent on that opioid, meaning it’s going to be hard for them to come off.”
Of Americans 65 or older, 8.5 million received prescriptions for opioids in 2013, which totaled nearly 55 million opioid prescriptions. This marked a 20 percent increase in senior opioid prescriptions since 2008. While research on the exact number of senior citizens is limited, experts estimate that as many as two to five million senior citizens are addicted to prescription opioids.
Many seniors develop prescription drug addictions while following the treatment plan set by their physician. Larry Moore, a senior citizen who was prescribed OxyContin and hydrocodone to treat back pain, says he developed an opioid addiction by simply following the treatment regimen his doctor gave him.
“It was taking exactly what the doctor prescribed, when the doctor prescribed, how the doctor prescribed.”
According to Kolodny, the opioid abuse epidemic is most severe among the older generation in the U.S.
“We see the highest rate of drug overdose death in older Americans,” Kolodny said. “And when you look at the groups that have had the greatest increase in problems associated with prescription opioids — for example, visits to hospital emergency rooms because of opioid misuse — it’s Americans over 65.”
The rising rate of prescription drug abuse among seniors is not a new phenomenon. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rate of Americans 55 and older seeking treatment for prescription drug abuse rose 46 percent from 2007 to 2011. During this same time, the number of emergency room visits for senior citizens 65 and older increased 50 percent.
The rate of drug overdose deaths (including nonprescription drugs) among people 55 and older nearly tripled from 1999 to 2010.
Although there are statistics showing the prevalence of prescription drug abuse among the elderly, there is reason to believe it could be much worse.
Often, overdose deaths of senior citizens go unnoticed or unreported because it is not unusual for the elderly to pass away from natural causes suddenly, and, therefore, an autopsy is never performed to determine the cause of death. The death is never reported as a drug overdose and is left out of the statistical analysis of the epidemic.
Even with the already high overdose death statistics in older Americans that we have, there may be a massive undercount.
The rate of senior drug abuse is estimated to increase as well. SAMHSA estimates that 4.4 million older people will need substance use disorder treatment by 2020, an increase of 259 percent since 2003. Many experts attribute this prediction to the growing age of the baby boomer generation, who were are more liberal and accepting of drug use than the previous generation.