Prescription drug abuse and misuse are growing public health problems that affect people of all ages, especially senior citizens. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 50% of people between the ages of 57 to 85 take more than five medications or supplements daily.  This increases the risk of mistakes and drug abuse. Growing older also slows down your body’s ability to absorb and filter medicines while the brain can be more sensitive to drugs.

Prescription drug abuse is the intentional use of a medication without a prescription, or in a way other than prescribed, for the purpose of getting high or altering one’s mood.  Prescription drug misuse is the unintentional or inappropriate use of a medication, such as taking the wrong dose, taking someone else’s medication, or using it for a longer period than prescribed.

It might seem unbelievable that your parent or grandparent could be a drug addict, but there is growing evidence of seniors developing dependencies on their medications.

Since many of the signs of drug abuse mirror the symptoms of aging itself, doctors note that determining the exact number of older drug addicts is difficult. Nonetheless, the consensus is that the numbers have risen sharply over the last decade. By some accounts, as many as 15 percent of seniors abuse prescription drugs, particularly tranquilizers, painkillers and sleep aids.

The most commonly abused or misused prescription drugs among senior citizens are opioids, benzodiazepines, and stimulants. Opioids are painkillers, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine. Benzodiazepines are sedatives, such as diazepam, alprazolam, and lorazepam. Stimulants are drugs that enhance alertness and energy, such as methylphenidate, amphetamine, and modafinil.

Why This Happens

When seniors misuse medications, it is rarely purposeful. There is almost always an underlying factor that precipitates the problem.  Some of these might include:

  • Chronic pain: Many older adults suffer from chronic pain due to conditions such as arthritis, cancer, or nerve damage. They may use opioids to relieve their pain, but over time, they may develop tolerance, dependence, or addiction. They may also take higher doses than prescribed, or combine opioids with other drugs or alcohol, which can be dangerous or fatal.
  • Mental health issues: Some older adults may experience depression, anxiety, insomnia, or dementia, and may use benzodiazepines to cope with their symptoms. However, benzodiazepines can cause confusion, memory loss, falls, and addiction. They can also interact with other medications or substances and increase the risk of overdose.
  • Cognitive decline: Some older adults may have trouble remembering or following their medication instructions, and may accidentally take the wrong drug, the wrong dose, or the wrong time. They may also forget that they have already taken their medication, and take it again, resulting in double dosing.
  • Social isolation: Some older adults may feel lonely, bored, or neglected, and may use prescription drugs to fill the void or escape their reality. They may also lack social support or access to health care and may not seek help for their drug problems.

Possible Consequences

The results of misusing medication can have far reaching and dangerous implications.  Some of the results of drug misuse can include the following:

  • Physical health problems: Prescription drugs can cause various side effects, such as nausea, constipation, drowsiness, dizziness, or breathing problems. They can also worsen existing health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or kidney disease. They can also cause organ damage, infections, or overdose.
  • Mental health problems: Prescription drugs can affect the brain’s chemistry and function, and cause mood swings, confusion, paranoia, hallucinations, or psychosis. They can also aggravate or trigger mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, or dementia.
  • Quality of life problems: Prescription drugs can impair the ability to perform daily activities, such as driving, working, or socializing. They can also affect the relationships with family, friends, or caregivers.

Signs of a Problem

Misuse of prescription drugs can often be confused with other signs that occur with natural aging.  It is important to look deeper into behaviors that are not normal.  Some to these include the following:

  • You may observe your senior’s attempts to obtain more drugs, perhaps by regularly changing doctors or pharmacies.
  • If you see more pill bottles than usual it might be a sign of a problem.
  • You may see examples of unexplained missing medications.
  • If your senior seems emotionally different, perhaps exhibiting signs of isolation you should give the behavior extra attention and find the source.  You may observe marked changes in mood, appetite or sleep habits.
  • Look for changes in mobility, including poor balance, difficulty walking or instances of falling.
  • Sometimes misuse of medications can cause conflicts with others, including family members and friends, coworkers.

Strategies to Prevent the Problem

Observant family members and caregivers can go a long way toward heading off the problems associated with misusing prescription medications.  Consider the following:

  • Educating older adults and their caregivers about the risks and signs of prescription drug abuse and misuse, and how to use medications safely and appropriately.
  • Screening older adults for substance use disorders and mental health issues and providing them with appropriate treatment and support.
  • Monitoring older adults’ medication use and adherence and reviewing their prescriptions regularly to avoid unnecessary or harmful drugs.
  • Providing older adults with alternative or complementary therapies for pain management, such as physical therapy, acupuncture, or massage.
  • Enhancing older adults’ social and emotional well-being, and helping them cope with stress, loneliness, or grief.

Prescription drug abuse and misuse are a hidden epidemic among senior citizens, and they pose a serious threat to their health and quality of life. By raising awareness and taking action, we can help older adults enjoy their golden years without the burden of drug problems.