Older adults not immune to drug abuse

It’s no secret that there’s a growing trend regarding prescription addiction and abuse. What may be surprising, though, is that a high number of elderly Americans are becoming dangerously hooked on these drugs.

Opioids like oxycodone, (brand name: Percocet, OxyContin), hydrocodone (brand name: Vicodin), and codeine are doctor-prescribed medicines that reduce pain.

Typically approved for use after major surgeries, these drugs are generally safe when taken responsibly — taking the correct dosage at the correct time.

However, it can be easy to become reliant on these drugs, and for seniors especially, the consequences can be life threatening.

According to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the average number of seniors misusing or dependent on prescription pain killers grew to 336,000 in 2012 — up from 132,000 just 10 years earlier.

Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that the number of overdose deaths among people ages 55 and older nearly tripled between 1999 and 2010.

So how do people become addicted? Most of the time, opioid addiction starts with a prescription from a doctor because of a true need for the drug.

Unfortunately, though, using opioids for a long period of time changes the way nerve cells work in the brain.

The nerve cells can become so hooked on the opioids, that when the person no longer needs to take the drug and stops treatment, withdrawal symptoms strike.

Withdrawal can be mild or severe, and is usually marked by a combination of fever, shaking, insomnia, diarrhea, chills, sweating, low energy and more.

Because of the powerful symptoms of withdrawal and because of the brain’s “insistent need” for opioids, it’s easy to see how misuse, abuse and addiction can start.

These drugs are so powerful that it can be easy to begin to rely on them daily. Addiction can also start when the drugs are taken in higher doses than prescribed, when the medicine is no longer needed to control pain, or when it is mixed with alcohol or other substances.

Opioids have a much stronger effect on older bodies, and addiction can be difficult to detect.

Oftentimes, addiction might manifest as confusion, lethargy, depression or constipation — all symptoms that resemble regular plights of an aging mind and body.

This age group in particular takes more prescription medications than any other age group, but that doesn’t mean that older adults are immune from the power of these drugs; seniors can become addicted just as easily as anyone else.

While doctors do their best to closely monitor opioid use, addiction can be tricky. Because doctors aren’t with their patients every hour of every day, a lot of times the responsibility falls on friends and family to note any drastic changes in the health and behavior of loved ones.

If you witness an older adult doing one or more of the following, he or she may be abusing or have an addiction to opioids:

• Taking more of the medicine than is prescribed

• Obtaining a prescription for the same medicine from more than one doctor

• Becoming offensive when asked about the medicine

• Extreme behavior changes like anger or anxiety

• Keeping extra pills in a pocket or purse

• Sneaking or hiding the medicine

At this point, it’s imperative to speak with a doctor about alternative treatment options.

One of the biggest mistakes that a friend or family member can make is to chalk up the possible signs of addiction to “just getting older.”

Left unmentioned, just one increased dose of an opioid can lead to severe respiratory or cardiac distress and death.

The best place to start for opioid addiction or any type of addiction is with a primary care physician. Doctors can help by pairing patients with the resources they need, including referrals to specialized practitioners.

Additionally, Narcotics Anonymous is an excellent resource for those struggling with narcotic addiction and those recovering from addiction.

Meeting dates, times and locations across the Centre region can be found at na.org/meetingsearch.