Medication abuse in older adults steadily climbing – despite the risks - Sovereign Health Group
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02-16-17 Category: Addiction, Substance Abuse


In late 2015, a study appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which found that nearly 60 percent of Americans were taking at least one prescription drug. This represented an 8 percent increase from 1999-2000 to 2011-2012. Moreover, polypharmacy – using five or more prescription medications – increased from 8 percent to 15 percent over the same time period.

Although most of the prescription drugs were for chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, psychoactive drugs – drugs which affect behaviors, emotions and the mind – also saw an increase in use. Antidepressant prescriptions climbed from 7 percent to 13 percent in the same time period.

It’s a trend which has continued – a new study just released from the University of Michigan (UM) has found that the use of multiple psychoactive medications is rising in seniors – despite often serious hazards. More alarming to the researchers was the revelation that nearly half the people taking the drugs were not diagnosed with a condition, such as mental illness or chronic pain, which warranted use of the drug.

A prescription doesn’t make some medications any less addictive or dangerous than illicit street drugs. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that more than 33,000 people died from opioids – nearly half of the fatalities were from prescription painkillers. Benzodiazepines – which include such widely-prescribed drugs as Xanax – can also be dangerous.

Multiple prescriptions can mean risks

Researchers from UM and the Veterans Administration Ann Arbor Healthcare System examined data from doctors’ offices collected from 2004 to 2013 by the CDC. They discovered in 2004, only 0.6 percent of people aged 65 or older took three or more drugs that affected the central nervous system. By 2013, that percentage had risen to 1.4 percent. Applied to the total number of seniors in the United States, that percentage equals over 3.6 million visits to the doctor by seniors taking three or more psychoactive drugs.

“We hope that the newer prescribing guidelines for older adults encourage providers and patients to reconsider the potential risks and benefits from these combinations,” said study lead author Donovan Maust, M.D., in a UM press release.

Mixing prescription medications can be lethal. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement requiring drug manufacturers to change prescription labeling, warning consumers about the potential dangers of mixing drugs such as prescription painkillers and benzodiazepines. “It is nothing short of a public health crisis when you see a substantial increase of avoidable overdose and death related to two widely used drug classes being taken together,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, M.D., in the statement.

In addition to bad interactions and overdoses, many prescription drugs such as painkillers and tranquilizers are highly addictive.

Addiction doesn’t discriminate by age

A report issued by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in 2015 found that drug use was increasing among people aged between 50 and their early 60s.

Drug use often creates more problems for older adults. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the reasons include:

  • Biological factors, including a greater sensitivity to medication and a slower metabolism
  • Higher rates of pain and anxiety, as well as cognitive decline, which means greater confusion about medication use
  • A greater likelihood of taking prescriptions for longer periods

SAMHSA also warns that the combination of alcohol and prescription misuse affects up to 19 percent of older Americans.

Diagnosing addiction in older adults isn’t always easy – the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) says that the symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse can often look similar to other disorders experienced by older people. Also, NCADD warns that there’s often a lack of urgency in treating older people for addiction, as the condition is seen as more pressing in younger patients.

Treating addiction in middle-aged and older adults

Some care providers use specialized programs to address the needs of older patients, such as Sovereign Health’s Personal Recovery Integrating Men’s Experiences (PRIME) program based out of its Palm Desert treatment center. The program specifically treats men over the age of 40, focusing on eliminating the stigma associated with addiction while giving them the tools they need to focus on a sober, happier life.

Addiction, like other diseases, doesn’t care about age. Although Sovereign Health’s Palm Desert facility has a specific program for older men, older patients are welcome at our Los Angeles and San Clemente treatment centers. We make use of effective, evidence-based treatment to ensure that every patient has the best chance at a lasting recovery. For more information about our substance abuse treatment or pain management programs, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Brian Moore is a staff writer and graphic designer for Sovereign Health. A 20-year veteran of the newspaper industry, he writes articles and creates graphics across Sovereign’s portfolio of marketing and content products. Brian enjoys music, bicycling and playing the tuba, which he’s done with varying degrees of success for over 25 years. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author and designer at

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