Senior Citizen Opioid Abuse And Addiction On The Rise

Opioids are commonly prescribed for the elderly to treat chronic pain, increasing the risk of misuse and addiction. The older a person gets, the more at risk they are for dependence and overdose. Senior Citizens struggling with an addiction to opioids are best treated in an inpatient rehab setting that can focus on individual care.

Elderly Opioid Abuse

Senior Citizens And Opioid Abuse Statistics

Prescription opioids are a major contributor to the rise in opioid-related overdose fatalities, especially for the elderly. Many people over the age of 65 suffer from chronic pain, and opioids are the go-to prescription medication. Due to the addictive qualities of opioids and the prevalence of prescriptions, many elderly people are developing addictions without knowing it. Because of other health issues, opioid addiction can go unreported and unnoticed in older adults.

According to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health, just over 1% of people who misused opioids in the past year are over the age of 65. Although this percentage may seem small, opioid misuse is a growing problem within the senior population.

Between 2006 and 2012, United States emergency rooms saw a 78% rise in visits involving seniors and prescription or illicit drug misuse. Over 10% of those visits included opioids, and over half of all the patients were over the age of 75.


For people over 65, the hospitalization rate related to opioid misuse has quintupled (5 times as much) in the last two decades.

More than 500,000 Medicare recipients received prescriptions for opioids in 2016, which is much higher than recommended. Opioid misuse will continue to be a problem for older adults, as the percentage of seniors misusing opioids is expected to double by 2020. Because the baby boomer generation (born between 1940-1960) is aging, the population of older adults is increasing in the U.S.

Why Seniors Are At Risk Of Opioid Addiction

Older adults are likely to experience emotional, physical, social, and cognitive changes that often lead to taking medications as a coping mechanism. This is especially true for people with serious health conditions.

Elderly adults can become addicted when opioids are prescribed to treat chronic, or recurrent, pain. Opioid pain medications, like OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, and fentanyl, are routinely prescribed for chronic conditions like arthritis, lower back pain, headache, cancer, muscle pain, and other illnesses.

If a senior talks to their doctor about persistent pain, they’re more likely to receive an opioid prescription than younger people. While the medical industry is coming up with new practices regarding prescriptions, over half the elderly population suffers from chronic pain, and opioids remain the best solution for short-term relief.

A 2016 survey found 99% of doctors prescribe opioids over the recommended dosage limit of 3 days. Using opioids for much longer will likely result in dependence.

The Likelihood Of Dependence When Prescribed Prescription Opioids

Physical dependence can onset within five days of first using opioids. The longer someone takes opioids, the more they need to relieve pain. Once dependence grows, tolerance increases, meaning they need to take more to achieve the desired effects.

When older people stop taking their opioid medications, they may feel terrible. Because they feel bad, they take another opioid pill and immediately feel better. Although the person may believe the drug is relieving the pain of their condition, it may only be relieving the pain and discomfort of opioid withdrawal, a clear sign of addiction.

Signs Of Opioid Addiction In Seniors

Prescription drug misuse and addiction can go unnoticed within the senior population. Substance abuse problems can be misdiagnosed because other conditions, like dementia or depression, may have similar symptoms. Plus, older people may be reluctant to acknowledge they’re addicted to opioids when they’ve never had any other problems with substance abuse.

For the elderly, an opioid addiction is usually realized by a loved one or close relative. Some signs a person is addicted to opioids can include:

  • agitation
  • confusion
  • irritability
  • memory problems
  • “needing” medication to relieve pain
  • neglecting personal hygiene
  • lack of interest in favorite activities
  • unexplained recurrent pain
  • withdrawal symptoms after stopping use

Polydrug Abuse And The Risk Of Overdose In Seniors

Older populations are likely to have several prescriptions at once. For people age 65 and older, 65% report using 3 or more prescription drugs in the last 30 days. Taking multiple medications can lead to dangerous drug interactions. For example, mixing opioids with sleeping medications can cause extreme sedation and respiratory depression (breathing problems), which can lead to overdose.

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An elderly person may forget they’ve already taken a dose of their medication, and take another. This is dangerous because high doses increase the risk of overdose. There is a high rate of overdose deaths in populations that receive completely legitimate opioid prescriptions, but may be even higher because some overdose deaths within the elderly population are attributed to other causes, like falls or heart failure.

Once an opioid addiction is evident, the person should consult a doctor or seek treatment immediately.

Treatment For Seniors Addicted To Opioids

Withdrawal and detoxification can be the hardest part of treatment for elderly adults. Opioids can cause uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms like chills, sweating, vomiting, and other flu-like symptoms. A medically-supervised detox program can help seniors overcome withdrawal symptoms and lessen dependence. Held in inpatient treatment centers or hospitals, detox programs ensure patients are safe and comfortable during the worst of withdrawal.

Further treatment should immediately follow a detox program. Opioid addiction is likely best served for elderly persons at an inpatient treatment center. Here, they will receive around-the-clock medical care, have access to medications, recieve treatment for other physical or mental health conditions, and engage in therapy and counseling.

Contact a treatment specialist today for more information on treating opioid addiction in older adults.


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