Prescription drug abuse has become a dramatic public health concern in the United States, and it is not limited to “young people.” Mental health providers, physicians, and government agencies are noting increasing problems with the misuse and abuse of prescription medications amongst older adults, including the Baby Boomers. While there have not been many studies on the subject, some research shows that up to 26% of people over the age of 65 misuse or abuse their prescription drugs.
Why are so many older adults misusing or abusing their medications? Older adults who have cognitive decline, including dementia, may experience confusion about how and when to take their medications. Pain, anxiety, depression and sleep problems are common in the elderly, and the medications prescribed for these conditions can lead to abuse or dependence. Some older adults on limited incomes may “borrow” or share medications. In most cases, the abuse or misuse is not intentional, and the medication is obtained legally, by prescription.
Older adults face some particular risks if they misuse their medications. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), older adults are more vulnerable to this problem because as a group they use more prescription drugs than younger adults. Due to the slowing metabolism and elimination associated with aging, even small amounts of medication can impact older adults in dramatic ways. Many older adults take multiple medications, increasing the likelihood of medication interactions. The abuse or misuse of “psychoactive drugs” taken for depression, anxiety, and insomnia is of particular concern as these drugs act on the central nervous system. If used inappropriately, or mixed with alcohol, these medications can cause sedation, memory problems, functional impairment, and/or falls. Those older adults most vulnerable to psychoactive medication abuse are socially isolated women with histories of substance abuse and mental health problems, especially depression.
What can older adults and their families do to avoid prescription drug misuse and abuse?
- Read and follow prescription drug usage instructions and ask your health care provider for information on side effects.
- Do not rush to increase the strength of your medication, especially pain medication. Talk to your doctor if your symptoms are not improving, and explore non-prescription methods to address your symptoms (such as massage, acupuncture or stretching/exercise). For depression and anxiety, consider talk therapy as well as medication therapy.
- Let your doctor and pharmacist know about every medication you are taking, prescription and over-the-counter, including supplements.
- If you are taking more than five medications, it is likely you will experience some drug interactions. Consider working with a senior care pharmacist to review your medication list and identify possible changes to discuss with your doctor.
- Never use another person’s medications. If the cost of medication is a concern for you, ask your doctor for samples and talk to your pharmacist about medication assistance programs.
- If you suspect you may have a problem with prescription drug abuse or misuse, know that you are not alone and help is available. Talk to your doctor, mental health professional, or geriatric care manager for local resources.
Information gathered from fact sheet from SAMHSA: http://www.aoa.gov/AoARoot/AoA_Programs/HPW/Behavioral/docs2/Issue%20Brief%205%20Prescription%20Med%20Misuse%20Abuse.pdf