HealthZette

Elderly and Addicted in America

Guess what Grandma's got in her medicine cabinet?

Our senior citizens are no stranger to aches and pains — so you can imagine how prone they are to becoming addicted to painkillers such as oxycodone, methadone, and hydrocodone.

This is why our nation’s opioid epidemic literally affects all Americans.

“Adult children of the elderly would do well to think of opiates as a last resort — not the first line of defense,” said one drug expert.

“More elderly people are experiencing addiction to these drugs,” said Dr. Kevin Sabet, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida and a former senior adviser to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy under President Obama. Doctors are too quick to prescribe drugs for pain, he added.

“What might start as a legitimate reason [for the prescription] can quickly slide a person into dependence,” he said. “Adult children of the elderly would do well to think of opiates as a last resort — not the first line of defense.”

Worrisome Increase
In 2015 alone, nearly one-third of Medicare beneficiaries — almost 12 million Americans — received a prescription for commonly abused opioids, according to a report from the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of patients 65 and older on Medicare prescriptions for opioids went up more than 30 percent between 2007 and 2012, a USA Today analysis in 2014 of Medicare data showed. The estimates are that about 8.5 million elderly patients received opioid prescriptions in 2012.

The projected increase in the elderly population in coming decades warrants the development of policies and procedures that address opioid use and misuse in the population. That’s according to Dr. Bertha Madras, a professor of psychobiology and chair of the division of neurochemistry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Senior citizens taking benzodiazepines for things like muscle relaxation or anxiety are at an increased risk for overdose.

“The elderly population [have] more chronic pain conditions, more anxiety and depression, a higher level of suicidal thinking, and a greater likelihood to be prescribed other medications — which can increase the risk of opioid overdose,” she told LifeZette.

The rate of abuse or addiction in those over 65 is about 18 percent, the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry reported in 2014.

Senior citizens taking benzodiazepines for things like muscle relaxation or anxiety are at an increased risk for overdose. Other risk factors include being female, experiencing depression, being dependent on other substances, and having low income.

Being on other prescriptions along with an opioid could put more elderly people at risk because of drug interactions, said Dr. Arthur Robin Williams, a psychiatrist and research physician at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.

“Older patients have multiple changes in their bodies that reduce the clearance of medications, meaning their blood levels of active agents may be much higher than those of a younger patient,” he noted.

Related: ‘I’d Rather Not Talk About It’

A study by the National Safety Council found adults over age 65 who take opioid painkillers are 68 percent more likely to be hospitalized and 87 percent more likely to die than similarly aged people taking over-the-counter medications.

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In addition to close monitoring, Madras said adult children need to be involved in their parents’ care, as it can reduce deaths from prescription opioids.

Another concern with elderly people having opioids is a very real one: Grandchildren may be able to access the drugs more easily, Williams said.

“Constant vigilance and effective strategies of this at-risk population are needed,” Madras said.