A U.S. Opioid Health Epidemic, Part 2

According to our nation’s leaders, opioid abuse has now reached an epidemic level in our country, especially among younger Americans. However, most of us are unaware of the opioid abuse and dependence (often unintentionally) being discovered among older U.S. adults, as well.

One federal report issues this statement: “Nearly 12 million Medicare beneficiaries received at least one prescription for an opioid painkiller last year (2015) at a cost of $4.1 billion.” In other words, nearly one-third of Medicare beneficiaries received at least one prescription for commonly abused opioids. Those who did received an average of five such prescriptions or refills that year.   

May Wilkerson explained in “Opioid Addiction Rising Among Senior Citizens” that “Prescription opioid medications like oxycodone (OxyContin) and fentanyl (and morphine) can be just as addictive and harmful as street heroin.” 

These opioids can be prescribed by medical professionals to treat commonly found painful conditions such as lower back pain, arthritis, fibromyalgia, other chronic muscle and bone pain, post-surgery pain, and at times, even insomnia, a persistent cough, and shortness of breath. The opioid problem can be very difficult to spot because of the tremendous overmedicating now taking place among elderly patients. In addition, doctors often miss giving correct identifying questions when seeing their aged patients, as well as caregivers who frequently miss clues of any substance use disorder. 

Wilkerson explains, “There was a 78% rise in the number of ER visits by older adults related to misuse of prescription or illegal drugs between 2006 and 2012…About 11% of that misuse was opiates. Of these cases, 53% were ages 65 to 74.” 

The real problem is that opioids were designed to treat acute pain, not chronic pain. When opioids are prescribed to treat chronic pain, patients can experience a higher tolerance over a period of time, thus often requiring a still higher dose of meds in the future.

The potential danger of opioid use or misuse includes a higher number of injuries from falls. In a recent study, COPD (progressive lung disease) patients taking opioids also showed an increase of odds for heart-related deaths. Dr. Joseph Garbely, medical director of Caron Treatment Centers, explains that due to the numerous prescriptions prescribed, accidental overdoses appear in larger numbers. 

“Even just accidentally taking two prescription painkillers, instead of one, could be fatal for someone in their 70s or above.”

Middle-aged adults between the ages of 45 and 54 appear to have the highest death rates from opioid drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality alarmingly reports “…the sharpest rise in hospitalizations for opioid overuse was among Americans age 45 to 85 and older, with rates skyrocketing more than fivefold between 1993 and 2012 (most recent stats at that time).”

Here’s how you can give a holiday and New Year gift of “giving attention” to those in need. If you are aware of a senior family member or friend dealing with chronic pain, experts advise keeping a watchful eye on that person and checking for these possible signs: depression, anxiety, and/or an increase in disorientation or bodily injuries. A list of these potential signs of opioid misuse or dependence, along with another list of the senior’s meds, should be brought to the attention of the individual’s physician. Remember non-drug alternatives to chronic pain can be found through yoga, walking, all water exercises, meditation, and weight loss. 

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