Not as Prescribed

The alarming increase of drug misuse, addiction & polypharmacy in older adults

Drug misuse, addiction, and polypharmacy among men and women aged 50 and older are the fast-growing yet most unrecognized health problems in the United States. In the Not as Prescribed webinar, Harry Haroutunian, MD, discussed the impact of addiction on older adults and ways in which this growing health problem can be addressed by healthcare providers.

Key Takeaways:

  • 17% of older adults misuse alcohol and prescription drugs. When we include misuse of other drugs, that number is even higher.
  • By 2020, the number of addicted older adults is expected to double to about six million.
  • Widowers over age 75 suffer the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.
  • Polypharmacy is the taking of multiple medications, supplements, minerals, herbs, and/or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs for chronic health conditions, acute conditions, or general well-being.
  • An estimated 25% of emergency department visits are related to bad alcohol-medication interactions.
  • About 12% of those 65 and older take 10 or more medications per week, including OTC drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen, and supplements such as vitamins, minerals, and herbs. More than 50% use at least five medications per week.
  • Since 2002, use of prescription painkillers has doubled.
  • 92% of U.S. adults live with at least one chronic condition; 41% have three or more conditions.
  • Each year, doctors write 17 million tranquilizer prescriptions for older adults, including for benzodiazepines, the most widely misused class of drugs among that age group.
  • In 2014, Americans filled over four billion prescriptions at retail pharmacies alone; and adults over 65 fill more than twice as many prescriptions as younger patients.
  • Many symptoms of normal aging overlap with symptoms of misusing or being addicted to alcohol, benzodiazepines, painkillers, or other drugs.
  • Older adults may become intoxicated after consuming only a small amount of a substance when compared to younger adults. This is particularly true with alcohol.
  • At least 50 conditions, ranging from alcoholism to Parkinson's disease to slow-growing brain tumors, can mimic the signs and symptoms of dementia.
  • When cognitive impairment is caused by something other than true dementia, and if it is caught before significant brain damage has occurred, the symptoms are reversible.
  • The vast majority of older adults innocently begin taking psychoactive drugs based on doctor's orders.
  • 25% of older adults use prescription psychoactive medications that have the potential for misuse.
  • From 2004 to 2008, emergency departments saw a 121% increase in visits involving prescription medication misuse by older adults.
  • Non-medical use of prescription drugs among older adults is expected to increase by 190%–from 911,000 in 2001 to 2.7 million in 2020.
  • According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), an alarming 16,000 people died in 2013 from opioid overdose, more than from any other drug.
  • The biggest hurdle in getting to addiction treatment is not logistical or financial. Instead, be prepared for what many older adults hold on to for dear life: denial and independence.

Watch Not As Prescribed on-demand now.

Dr. Haroutunian ("Dr. Harry") serves as the physician director of the Professionals Program, Residential Day Treatment and Clinical Diagnostic Evaluation at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California. His most recent book is Not as Prescribed, Recognizing and Facing Alcohol and Drug Misuse in Older Adults.

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