Seniors and Drug Addiction
When you think of drug addiction, images of illicit drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, may come to mind. You may also associate addiction with younger generations. However, substance abuse also extends to prescription medications, and senior citizens are at high risk for developing prescription drug abuse. If you are the family member or caregiver of a senior citizen, you must learn to recognize the risk factors and signs of such an addiction.
There are many types of drugs that a senior can become addicted to. According to a 2015 AARP report, painkillers were the top misused drugs. Among the commonly prescribed painkillers are opioids, which are quite addictive. Addiction can be caused by more than just the addictive nature of pills. Learning to recognize those factors and eliminate risks is essential to keep seniors safe. Below is more information about seniors and drug addiction to help you if you are a caregiver or a loved one of an at-risk senior.
Senior Health Issues Increase Substance Abuse Risks
One reason seniors are at high risk for developing a drug addiction is their frail health. For example, it is common for metabolism to slow down with age, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Health problems seniors develop also tend to be chronic or recurring, causing extended use of medications.
National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) data indicates 80 percent of adults between 57 and 80 years of age take at least one prescription medication regularly. Many seniors who take prescription medications also combine those medications with over-the-counter remedies. Fifty percent of them take more than five supplements or medications per day. Therefore, their risks for drug interactions and dependency are high, which can lead to polysubstance abuse.
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Another factor influencing senior risk potential for drug addiction is cognitive decline, according to NIDA. Many seniors experience some forgetfulness with age. This forgetfulness may lead to accidental misuse of their medications. Others develop mental or neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease or a type of dementia. With these conditions, seniors may:
- Take higher doses than their doctors prescribe.
- Continue taking medication longer than they need to. include:
- Not comprehend the potential for drug interactions with other medications.
Prolonged Opioid Use and Opioid Addiction in Seniors
Medical prescription practices can also have a large impact on prescription drug addiction in seniors. Opioid addiction is rising because opioids are not always taken as directed. They also are not always prescribed properly. Seniors suffering from pain can get relief from opioids, but there is some debate regarding the types of pain safe to treat with them. A 2017 SAMHSA report cites opioids as good tools for managing chronic pain but also cautions medical professionals must prescribe them with care.
Some experts point out opioid tolerance leads to addiction in patients of all ages, including seniors. As their bodies build up a tolerance, they have to take more of the drugs to receive any relief from their pain or other symptoms they are trying to treat. Seniors with disabilities are more likely to need pain relief as they get older.
Increased cravings for the drugs often lead to misuse, such as taking too many doses in a set time period. Because of this, many experts recommend against physicians prescribing opioids to older patients. Opioids are generally considered safest when used on a short-term basis to treat temporary pain. Prolonged use, such as by seniors with chronic illnesses, raises drug addiction risk factors substantially.
Insurance, Medical Miscommunications and Senior Drug Addiction
Not all of the reasons for senior drug addiction can be traced to the actions of the seniors themselves or even disagreements regarding how to prescribe medication. Some of the blame lies with insurance complications.
For example, after getting health insurance, coverage often pays of medications like opioids for seniors. When seniors become addicted to those medications, they do not always seek help. When they do seek help, the medications and other treatments needed to counteract their addictions are often not covered. This leaves seniors caught in a cycle of prescription drug abuse.
Medical miscommunications are also responsible for many seniors developing a prescription drug addiction. Doctors tend to prescribe medications to elderly patients without delving into their medical histories. If the patients do not volunteer the information and the doctors do not ask, patients can wind up taking abnormally high doses of medications or addictive combinations of drugs.
Some elderly patients have multiple doctors. Senior patients can easily become confused when they receive multiple prescriptions from different doctors. They do not always recognize when they are given hazardous prescriptions, especially if the directions for use are unclear or the doctors do not communicate with each other.
Recognizing, Avoiding and Treating Senior Drug Addiction
“How do I recognize senior drug addiction?” is a question you must ask if you are the loved one or caregiver of an at-risk senior. The answer can be complicated because he or she may not display the same addiction symptoms as a younger addict. However, there are several signs you can look for. These signs include:
- Changes in moods.
- Altered sleeping
- Decreased mental capacity.
- Claiming to misplace medications and needing more.
- Taking medications for longer than necessary or for reasons other than those for which the medications were originally prescribed.
If you do not think your senior loved one has a drug addiction yet but you think he or she may be at risk, review all of his or her medications together. Make sure he or she has appropriate amounts of the medications and is taking them as directed.
Also, help him or her make a list of all current medications to show the doctors. Doing so ensures his or her medication consumption is properly monitored, and doctors are all fully aware of his or her medication consumption.
When a senior is already addicted to prescription drugs, helping him or her may be challenging. The problem may be treatable using behavioral therapy and medication. A substance abuse treatment program must be developed by professionals based on the type of medication to which he or she is addicted and the level of addiction. For example, buprenorphine is commonly used to treat opioid addiction but may be ineffective if the patient is addicted to another type of prescription drug.
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