New research is sounding the alarm about prescription painkiller abuse among older Americans. The research, which was presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry (AAAP), reports that roughly 20% of Americans over age 65 take analgesic medication for chronic pain several times per week. Among that group, the rate of prescription drug abuse or addiction is 18%.

About 20% of American seniors take pain medication several times per week

There are currently 38 million adults over age 65 represent in the U.S, representing 13% of the total population. One third of all prescriptions are written for this group. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), 2.8 million seniors abuse prescription drugs. By 2020, seniors will represent 20% of the population and SAMHSA estimates that 4.4 million will abuse drugs.

Many experts believe that aging Baby Boomers are more likely than their parents to turn to drugs for pain relief. Members of the World War II generation showed a tendency to be stoic about pain and to be careful about their use of drugs. Baby Boomers, who were exposed to drugs like marijuana and LSD in their youth, are more inclined to turn to prescription painkillers as seniors.

Senior Warning Signs

Older patients pose unique challenges when it comes to detecting prescription drug abuse. Many of the signs and symptoms of abuse may be mistaken for natural results of the aging process. The AAAP warns healthcare providers about these warning signs of senior prescription drug abuse:

  • Multiple medical problems.
  • A high incidence of chronic pain.
  • Asking for a painkiller prescription during the first office visit.
  • Doctor shopping for multiple prescriptions.
  • Requesting early pain prescription refills.
  • Reporting that a pain prescription has been lost or stolen.
  • A disheveled appearance.
  • Mood disorders.

According to Dr. Louis Trevisan of the Yale University School of Medicine, physicians should be just as careful about prescribing opioid-based drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin to elderly patients as they are with younger patients. Physicians also need to be aware that patients who take opioids for noncancer pain for an extended period could experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop.