Are Seniors More Prone to Opiate Addiction?
A drug treatment center is not exactly a place older adults think they’ll spend some time in during their golden retirement years. But many people age 50 and up are struggling with substance addictions that are sending them to a rehab, a hospital, or an early grave.
Seniors are among the most vulnerable populations affected by the opiate addiction crisis that continues to claim thousands of lives in the U.S. every year. According to a June 2017 report from the American Association of Retired Persons, or AARP, “almost one-third of all Medicare patients — nearly 12 million people — were prescribed opioid painkillers by their physicians in 2015. That same year, 2.7 million Americans older than age 50 took pain relievers for reasons or in amounts beyond what their physicians prescribed.”
The report also said, “The hospitalization rate due to opioid abuse has quintupled for those 65 and older in the past two decades.”
Opioid Use Among Senior Adults Projected to Increase
According to a report from the Administration on Aging and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the number of older adults who misuse opioids is projected to double from 2004 to 2020, from 1.2 percent to 2.4 percent.
Baby boomers—the generation born after World War II between 1946 and 1964—are the fastest-growing group of people who are dealing with opioid dependence and addiction. And, as the US adult population is projected to live longer, more people will face a substance dependence problem or addiction.
By the year 2020, the number of addicted older US adults who need drug and alcohol treatment is expected to double to about 6 million. By 2030, older adults will account for roughly 20 percent of the US population, according to the State of Aging and Health in America 2013 report.
Opiate Addiction Can Start With Doctor-Issued Pain Pills
Like other groups, not all older people battling substance use disorders will seek help or get the help they need. But there are seniors who are reaching out for help. Some treatment centers have reported an increase in admissions of older clients who want to enter addiction recovery.
While many older people struggle with drinking alcohol—which remains the most commonly abused substance—some life-threatening drug addictions start with legitimate prescriptions for opioids pain relievers that are obtained from doctors, dentists, and other health practitioners.
The practice of prescribing opioids for pain, such as OxyContin, fentanyl, hydrocodone (Vicodin, and others, started in the late 1990s. While these drugs can be effective at therapeutic levels, they are easy to misuse and abuse. Opiates act on the brain’s opioid receptors and changes how the body perceives and responds to pain, making them highly addictive.
The medications induce euphoria and relaxed feelings for many users, so some people take more of the drug to feel those sensations again and again at the risk of becoming addicted. Others will take more than what their doctor prescribed just to reduce the amount of pain felt or to feel no pain at all. But that, too, can lead to irresponsible use and a physical dependence that is difficult to break without the help of professional drug treatment center..
Risks of Addiction Higher for Older Adults
Addiction that occurs later in life brings challenges that are unique to older adults, who are not always aware of what taking these drugs means for their overall health and well-being. Below are a few reasons why senior adults tend to be prone to developing opiate addiction.
Age – Metabolism slows with age, and the body’s organs and central nervous system react differently when potent substances are in the body. This means that what is a normal dose for someone younger may be fatal or near-fatal one for someone who is older. It also means that prescription drugs do not clear an aging person’s body as fast as they once did. For older people who take prescription drugs, or other drugs, and drink alcohol, the risk of overdose is higher. Mixing drugs and alcohol, whether intentionally or unintentionally, can be dangerous and deadly.
Chronic health conditions – Aging increases the likelihood that older people will experience chronic pain and illnesses, such as arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and heart disease. It is common for doctors to prescribe strong pain relievers to help senior patients manage their illnesses, but doing so has led to the practice of overprescribing opioid medications in this demographic.
Seniors Buy More Medications – Older people are more susceptible to becoming addicted to opioids because they tend to buy and more prescription medications than other groups. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that while people age 65 and older are only 13 percent of the US population, they account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription drugs in the US.
Seniors Take Medications More Frequently – Senior adults also more prone to developing opiate addiction because they also use prescription drugs more often than the general population. Many people in this group also use more than one medication every day. “More than 80 percent of older patients (aged 57 to 85 years) use at least one prescription medication on a daily basis, with more than 50 percent taking more than five medications or supplements daily,” NIDA reports.
Interactions between medications, like those of alcohol and prescription opioids, can have intoxicating effects that can lead to overdose or death. Opioids that are commonly used to treat pain combined with benzodiazepines, such as Xanax and Valium, is another dangerous drug cocktail.
Die-Hard Drugs, Alcohol Habits – The views some older adults had about substance use in their younger years—when experimental drug use was accepted in some circles and the risks weren’t known or considered—could make some older adults more susceptible to addiction. People who drank or did drugs excessively in their younger years may take those habits or addictions into their older years and misuse or abuse medications and illicit substances.
Senior adults with a history of substance abuse should be upfront with their doctors about it. Physicians often do not ask their patients about these things, which can cause problems down the road, including not recognizing the signs of when addiction has set in. Some states are being impacted more then others.
Helping Seniors Who Are Dealing With Opiate Addiction
It might come as a surprise when seniors develop a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol and drugs, especially when prescription opioids are involved. The decision to get help for addiction is personal. Here are a few things to look for if you or a loved one has opiate addiction:
Age-appropriate addiction treatment – Effective treatment for older adults takes age-specific physical or cognitive health issues into consideration. Knowledgeable staff members who understand the unique needs of senior adults who are facing substance addiction can help make the process manageable. These include helping with concerns about medications, nutrition, and other areas.
Customized addiction treatment – Addiction recovery can be tailored to fit one’s schedule, personal needs, and preferences. Look for treatment centers that offer detox services and several options for recovery, such as an inpatient, residential, or outpatient program.
Continuing care – Ongoing therapy for senior adults who are recovering from opiate dependence can help guide them as they rebuild their lives after treatment. Twelve-step programs and alumni communities can offer support and connect people in recovery with others who share similar experiences and interests.
Elysia L. Richardson
Elysia L. Richardson is a content writer and editor who covers addiction and substance abuse issues for Delphi Behavioral Health Group. Previously a writer and editor for various digital and print publications, she enjoys researching news in the recovery field and finding engaging ways to share information.