USA Today reports that doctors are overprescribing pharmaceuticals to hundreds of thousands of seniors, leading to misuse, physical damage and addiction. The problem has gotten so bad that the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls it an “emerging epidemic.”
One 70 year-old woman provides an example of how the problem gets started. She had a back injury 20 years ago, and over the years various doctors prescribed her a collection of drugs. Among three that she was taking were:
- Fentanyl – a powerful narcotic
- Hydrocodone – also a painkiller
- Xanax – an addictive sedative
She saw a mix of different doctors – a general practitioner, an orthopedist, and pain specialists. None of them ever told her to cut back on the drugs; she said they just kept giving her more prescriptions. She got so foggy she didn’t feel safe to drive. Over time she got so addicted, when she missed a Fentanyl patch, she became nauseous and feverish – that’s when she decided enough was enough and she entered a treatment program. After kicking her narcotics addition, she had less back pain than during all the years on the pain meds – which can be common in patients who have built a tolerance to opioids.
No one ever doubted her back pain, but some of these drugs require caution in seniors, and some of the drugs reduce your physical and social activity, which can actually help relieve physical pain and social anxiety.
Misuse Becoming a Common Pattern
This is becoming a common pattern – patients are treated for a chronic problem, but then the dosages escalate either because the patients build up a tolerance, or they have even more pain. Based on a review of government data, USA Today estimates hundreds of thousands of seniors are misusing prescription drugs. And the problem has been getting worse: doctors today are prescribing narcotics and anxiety pharmaceuticals at record levels.
Here are several signs that the current system is not working:
- Addictions and misuse– The average number of seniors misusing or addicted to pharmaceuticals grew to over 330,000 in 2011, which is up from 130,000 ten years earlier; those 55 or older seeking treatment from addiction to prescription drugs was up 46% from 2007 – 2011
- Rise in ER visits – Annual trips to the ER by those 65 and over for misuse of prescription drugs rose more than 50% during the period 2007 – 2011, to more than 90,000 per year.
- The rate of deaths by overdose from prescription drugs for those 55 and older tripled over the period 1999 – 2010.
One in Four Seniors Prescribed Psychoactive Meds
This is an alarming statistic – doctors prescribe psychoactive medications for one in four U.S. citizens 50 and over. These meds are mostly opioids for pain, and benzodiazepines, such as valium, for anxiety. Both of these types of drugs have side effects of disorientation and balance, which can lead to injuries. Also problematic, is the fact that many doctors combine the two types of medicines, which can affect respiratory function.
Studies show neither type of drug offers a long-term solution. Opioids lose effectiveness as people build tolerance, and have little value anyway for chronic pain. Similarly, benzodiazepines are not seen as long-term solutions to anxiety issues.