Treatment for pain, anxiety, or a mood disorder often includes medications that are both effective and highly addictive. And while many caregivers are aware of potential misuse or abuse of prescription drugs, they may not factor in the problems that alcohol and illicit drugs present, especially in older adults.
But substance abuse is a serious health problem among older adults, with serious consequences:
Whether you are recovering from surgery or injury, or suffer from migraines or chronic pain, “painkillers” can provide temporary relief from pain and discomfort. The most common prescription pain medications are opioids, also called narcotics, which are either naturally derived from opium (such as morphine and codeine) or synthetically produced, such as Demerol (pethidine), Duragesic (fentanyl), Lorcet, Lortab (hydrocodone), Methadone, OxyContin (oxycodone), Percocet, Percodan, and Vicodin.
When the body begins to develop a tolerance to these drugs, dependence occurs. People must take higher doses to get the pain-relieving effect and to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal. Addiction can occur when users start to abuse the drugs, taking them for reasons other than pain relief. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that more than 4.7 million Americans are dependent on prescription painkillers.
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms of opioid addiction include:
Anti-anxiety drugs work by depressing the central nervous system and are known as sedatives. They can reduce feelings of tension and may be prescribed to help sleep. The most commonly prescribed anti-anxiety drugs are called benzodiazepines—in fact, these are the most widely prescribed drugs in the United States. They include Ativan, Halcion, Klonopin, Librium, Valium, and Xanax.
These drugs can quickly cause physical dependence so they are generally used on a short-term basis. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, admission for treatment of benzodiazepines nearly tripled in the United States between 1998 and 2008.
Signs of benzodiazepine abuse can include:
According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of illegal drug users between the ages of 50 and 59 more than tripled between 2002 and 2012. This may be because the number of adults in that age group increased, or because baby boomers are more familiar with drugs such as marijuana and cocaine. They may use recreational drugs or alcohol to self-medicate. Be aware of risk factors such as:
Watch for specific symptoms and warning signs of abuse:
The best safeguard is to pay attention. Keep the lines of communication open and be on the lookout for new or unexpected behaviors. If you see or suspect dependence or abuse of any of these drugs, contact a physician. Dealing with the problem early can prevent some of the more serious issues associated with addiction from taking root. And remember: Success rates for substance abuse treatment for older adults are as good as or better than those of younger people. Getting professional assistance does help!