This post was originally published on June 28, 2016.
Countless headlines have been written about prescription painkiller abuse and how it has gripped America’s youth in an addiction crisis. It is an indiscriminate epidemic and far too common, a sad yet familiar refrain that we just tend to shake our heads over, accepting it as status quo.
The CDC contends that the number of deaths from opioids has quadrupled since 1999, citing that people between the ages of 18 and 25 are the most vulnerable demographic. However, according to a recent New York Times article, prescription drug abuse isn’t limited to America’s young people. Quite the contrary: the article argues that older people are just as addicted to opioids and are—astonishingly—just better at hiding it. We may be facing an on-the-down-low problem that’s deeper and more devastating than we ever imagined.
Hiding In Plain Sight
While young people may be raiding their parents’ medicine cabinets, it’s unsettling to discover that those same parents might be filling said medicine cabinets with prescriptions they don’t actually need. In many cases, the Times piece claims, it’s just plain easier for older adults to gain access to prescriptions and to subsequently abuse them. One of the individuals profiled in the article “went to doctors with exaggerated truths,” hitting up psychiatrists, dentists, ERs and—from the sounds of it—just about anyone with a script pad. “I didn’t think I was addicted,” the woman, now sober, said. “But sometimes the pain pills are causing the pain, not the injuries. So you take more. I was naïve.” As most addicts know, how things progress from a simple prescription for painkillers to a full-on addiction is as murky and baffling as the actual number of older addicts out there.
When it comes to prescription abuse among seniors, the Times points the finger at “access to multiple doctors, many helping hands and lots of financial wherewithal [that]can help cloak the warning signs of addiction.” It’s an imperfect storm of factors that can lead to the perfect addiction. Addicted seniors can hide in plain sight—and oftentimes, hide their addictions from themselves. Further, the article cites a huge blind spot, noting that signs of addiction “can often be dismissed as symptoms of aging, such as confusion, shaky hands and mood swings.” Addicts who successfully cover their tracks or who don’t fully understand the progression of their usage will never receive the treatment they need.
The fuller picture of opioid addiction among older adults is only just starting to come into view and, sadly, very few studies exist when it comes to seniors and prescription abuse. Still, it’s worth zeroing in on the demographics of those seeking treatment for painkiller abuse. It’s not comprehensive—but it’s a start. A recent study examined the ages of patients in New York City from 1996 to 2012, noting a dramatic 35% increase in people aged 50 and older. The findings are disquieting, to say the least, and conclude that “little is known about the characteristics of the aging treatment population.” Even people between the ages of 60 and 69 saw a 12% increase in abuse. “These increases are especially striking, considering there was about a 7.6% decrease in the total patient population over that period of time, and suggests that we are facing a never before seen epidemic of older adults with substance use disorders and increasing numbers of older adults in substance abuse treatment,” the study’s leader said.
When it comes to drugs of choice, older adults are mostly drawn to opioids like OxyContin and Percocet, which are used “to drown out the aches and pains of aging,” the Times says. Anti-anxiety meds like Xanax and Valium are also popular among the same group. Unfortunately, meds and aging don’t mix well. What starts innocently enough turns into a slippery slope for many older folks. Two factors are to blame: “Drug tolerance that builds with time, and the body’s slowing metabolism, which gives drugs a bigger effect.” Sadly, older adults don’t seem to understand how the body conspires against them which contributes to them keeping themselves (and everyone around them) in the dark.
A Grim Glimpse Into the Future
Prescription abuse among seniors continues to be fraught with complications. For one, retirement and the resulting free-time serve as breeding grounds for addiction. “The loss of self-worth that sometimes comes with retirement, especially after a lifetime of achievement and accolades, can be the spark,” the Times article noted. “Moreover, addiction thrives on a lack of structure and accountability.” Another challenge is how to put older adults through detox. “They have to be monitored and slowly withdrawn,” a medical director was quoted in the Times. “Opioid withdrawal won’t kill you, but you’ll wish you were dead.” Physical and mental issues also serve to make treatment a longer, almost torturous process.
According to a piece in Science Daily, opioid addiction among older people isn’t bound to disappear anytime soon. “The increase in older adults utilizing opioid treatment programs is likely to continue into the next decade,” the article says. While it is upsetting to learn that opioid addiction knows no bounds when it comes to age, it is encouraging to know that treatment continues to be sought and as more studies are performed, the truth of addiction among older adults will emerge. As Science Daily noted: “More research is needed to understand how other substance use can complicate care and how to address the changing ethnic and racial demographics of this population.”
Still, the research that does exist provides a fascinating, if not altogether troubling glimpse into the truth about opioid addiction. Exact numbers and statistics remain unknown—and the behaviors and habits of seniors may very well keep it that way. In other words: the more we learn about seniors and opioid addiction, the less we may actually know. So when it comes to grandma and her pain management, we may actually be talking about managing addiction.