Senior Citizen Drug Dependency or Addiction

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Drug addiction can easily extend to seniors as they age, develop multiple chronic illnesses, have many pains, and are seen by different physicians who may not know what else the patient is taking.

Contrary to what many people may believe, substance abuse is not just a problem for young, reckless people who are living a party lifestyle. Senior citizens experiencing multiple pains from various ailments may end up abusing prescription painkillers or other substances. Medication abuse knows no boundary of age, and whether a person is 20 or 80, dependency and addiction is a possibility if he or she must use painkillers or similar drugs. It is important for such people to seek substance abuse treatment if they have become addicted or dependent.

Although illegal drug use among senior citizens is not commonplace, many older adults develop dependencies on prescription pain medications that were initially prescribed to treat the symptoms of chronic illnesses or injuries. Extended use of such drugs can lead to dependency or addiction, despite the fact that the medications were prescribed for legitimate ailments.

On average, older individuals take four to nine pills each day, which include both over-the-counter medications and prescription drugs. Unfortunately, symptoms of dependency are not always easily spotted by the person’s friends and family members and many doctors subconsciously dismiss potential addiction, as elderly people do not fit the classic profile associated with a substance abuser.

The timing of when to take medications can be an issue, as can the foods taken with them. Orange and grapefruit juice, for example, have high acidity levels that can breakdown and metabolize the meds too quickly. So it’s always best to tell the doctor about ALL of the meds taken each day and describe how they’re taken. Don’t assume she already knows that.

The most common addiction among senior citizens is to painkillers, such as Vicodin, Percocet, or morphine derivatives, the latter of which are usually prescribed following painful hip fractures or after joint replacement surgeries. Although such drugs are effective in relieving postoperative pain, some people become addicted to the euphoric feeling produced by medication of this type. This may lead them to embellish symptoms and ask for more prescriptions, which are usually provided by doctors who want to keep their patient’s pain free.

Health Consequences 

According to the National Institute of Health, overuse of prescription drugs can lead to a significant number of serious consequences in the elderly. Cognitive problems are one of the top side effects senior citizens experience when overusing medication. This symptom is often misdiagnosed as senility, old-age dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Balance issues and dizzy spells are also quite common, and they’re sometimes misdiagnosed as age-related disorders.

In certain instances, prolonged use of opioid analgesics to control pain lead to depression or delirium. Unfortunately, the symptoms are often treated with more medication, such as antidepressants, and that usually just makes the problem worse.

Signs of Drug Addiction 

Although symptoms can vary considerably from one person to the next, those abusing prescription drugs often experience mood disturbances or changes in personality. And taking more than the prescribed dose can mean they then running out of pills before the next prescription is due. That’s a classic sign of someone who is on the road to dependency or addiction. Changes in sleeping patterns or eating habits may also signal that someone is addicted or dependent on prescription medication. Tolerance to a particular drug, which means a normal dose no longer has the desired effect, is a definite sign that the person has been on the medication too long and may be developing a dependency.

Getting Help

Unfortunately, it is quite rare for a person to be able to cure himself or herself of a prescription drug dependency without the advice and assistance of professionals who are trained in the field of substance abuse. Treatment programs are available for seniors who are facing such problems and in most cases, substance abuse programs are available at no charge to the patient. Anyone suffering from prescription drug addiction should discuss the problem with his or her doctor or contact a treatment facility to schedule a consultation. The sooner help is sought, the sooner one can start down the road to recovery.

About the Author

Elliot Caleira is a freelance writer in the self-mastery and health and wellness spaces. When he’s not writing you’ll find him cooking or teaching Portuguese classes.

Related Infographic


Prescription Drug Abuse, a national epidemic

Infographic Transcript (for screen readers)

A culture of solving problems with a pill has developed in the last two decades that threatened the nation’s health in every major category. Every age group is also impacted by this growing epidemic of prescription drug abuse, including seniors.

Of all the classes of drugs abused, the three most common types are: (1) stimulants, (2) nervous system depressants, and (3) narcotic pain killers.

Between 1991 and 2010, the use of prescription stimulants increased from 5 million to 45 million.

6,600 people a day started non-medical use of prescription drugs in 2010.

As a result, the CDC reported a 111% increase in ER visits, from 144,644 in 2004 to 305,900 in 2008.

35-44 year olds are the largest age group overdosing on prescription drugs (but seniors too).

An NIH report found that the following age groups had the highest prescription drug overdose rate: 13.5% of non-hispanic whites, 11.7% of native Americans, and 10.9% of non-hispanic blacks.

40 people a day die from narcotic prescription overdose.

Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every american adult around the clock for a month.

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