Prescription painkillers are notorious for abuse and addiction, and with many medical issues affecting the elderly, pharmaceutical addiction has never been easier to fall into and harder to climb out of. In fact, in 2012, the average number of senior citizens misusing pain relievers was estimated to be 336,000. And in 2010, of deaths caused by overdose, 75 percent of them were due to prescription drugs.
Betty Van Amburgh, 68 and in treatment for addiction to painkillers that were once used for her back pain, told USA Today, “The doctors just kept prescribing them. It was always, ‘Do you have pain? Let me give you a prescription…’ But I got addicted. I was a zombie.” In her possession are transdermal patches laced with the narcotic fentanyl, as well as packages of Xanax and bottles of hydrocodone.
It’s easy to prescribe multiple drugs to senior citizens to help with their anxiety, joint pain and depression. As tolerance for the medication or their pain from the health problem increases, more medication is usually then prescribed. “Doctors are prescribing highly addictive drugs at record levels,” USA Today reports. As a consequence, overdose deaths, emergency room visits,and admission into addiction treatment programs are on a steady rise. This can be attributed to older brains and bodies being more prone to drug complications like dementia or respiratory failure. Even more so, older bodies metabolize drugs less quickly, causing the medications to build.
Mel Pohl, medical director at the Las Vegas Recovery Center, where seniors are treated for pain and drug dependence, says, “The doctor wants to make their life better, so they start on the meds. And without anyone necessarily realizing it, it begins a downward spiral with horrible consequences.”
Van Amburgh has lived through two decades of going from doctor-to-doctor and narcotic-to-narcotic. “For my husband, my family, I was non-existent,” she says. “It’s a common pattern,” the article states. “An older patient is medicated for a chronic problem, dosages escalate over time, leading to dependence.”
Researchers see two main reasons for this rising problem: drug companies and their aggressive marketing towards older consumers, and also physicians using these drugs to treat the elderly without properly training them first in addiction. Another cause could be the blurred lines between determining when a patient really needs prescription drugs and how long they actually need them for, especially since aging bodies can result in many complications with drug use.
“The thing that still pisses me off, though, is that nobody tried to take me off the drugs sooner. From one doctor to another, they just wrote me more prescriptions,” Van Amburgh says. “I think it was just ignorance.”