The Opioid Epidemic: Seniors Are Vulnerable

April 25, 2018

Photo by Sebastian Muller on Unsplash


The opioid epidemic in the US is on the rise, and, unfortunately, that’s no news to anyone any longer. In 2017, the HHS had actually declared a nationwide public health emergency, and it’s unlikely to dissolve into thin air any time soon.

The problem was engendered by a spur in the use of prescription opioid pain relievers, with the reassurance of pharmaceutical companies that these medications will not cause addiction. What ensued was extremely widespread misuse of opioids, and the senior population was among those hit the hardest. What began as an attempt to alleviate pain has ended in full-blown dependence on serious drugs for many patients. Seniors are often prone to chronic pain, thus they were often prescribed opioids, although current research strongly suggests that opioid derivatives should only be used in cases of acute pain, rather than chronic, or in end-of-life care.

Major issues in opioid addiction

There are several issues in opioid addiction in all population groups – overdose, abstinence, health consequences. It’s mistaken to assume that overdose is associated more closely with the younger population and the use of street drugs, while older people who inadvertently found themselves addicted to over-the-counter drugs have to deal with health consequences more than anything else. In fact, there have been consistent statistics that testify to the opposite. There actually a significant number of overdose deaths in the older population, peaking between 45 and 54, with the rates for the 45-85 population sharply increasing between 1993 and 2012. Total opioid deaths have increased tragically from ≈4,000 in 1999 to ≈19,000 in 2014.

The deception mechanism with opioids being prescribed for pain works in the following manner: after taking drugs for pain it’s difficult to discontinue using them, since even if the original pain may be long gone, the general discomfort and anxiousness that stem from withdrawal are still there. The self-perpetuating circle thus spurs itself on, and it can set in as fast as in just five days.

Another issue that mostly plagues the senior population is that of harmful drug interactions. For instance, opioids and sleeping pills are a very dangerous combination that may cause respiratory depression.

Opioids are now the leading accidental cause of death in the country, with numbers that exceed car crash deaths. Seniors make up 20% of opioid-related deaths. Why are seniors at such a great risk?

There are numerous reasons for that:

  • Seniors are more likely to experience pain
  • Seniors take a lot of medication, and drug interactions are highly likely
  • Kidneys and the liver function less efficiently in seniors, increasing the time for the drugs to be filtered out of the system
  • Memory loss may lead to inadvertently excessive drug intake
  • Seniors are often more emotionally fragile, and/or a social support system may be weakened, so that the opioid addiction may find fertile emotional ground

Awareness is the key

A major shift that may change the course of the deadly epidemic requires special awareness on the part pf physicians, the patients and the caretakers – which covers a huge part of our society.

Patient awareness is a crucial factor, so here are some tips if you’d like to avoid inadvertent addiction to the medicine you have been prescribed:

  • If you’re suffering from pain, ask your doctor about alternatives to opioid painkillers
  • Discuss potentially harmful drug interactions with your doctor
  • Record the times when you take medication
  • Never mix medication with alcohol or use someone else’s medicine
  • Review your medications regularly with your physician

Signs of senior substance abuse for caretakers

  • Frequent accidents/falls
  • Sudden shifts in the mood or increased irritability
  • Lethargic state
  • Unexplainably frequent prescription refills
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