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Older Adult Opioid Use on the Rise

opioid use among older adults

As we age, our bodies can quickly begin to need more support in order to function. Older adults tend to have more health issues than younger populations. They may rely on different types of medications in order to live their lives independently. Because of this, doctors often prescribe drugs to manage symptoms, including chronic pain, and may not consider the long-term effects of these prescriptions. Opioid use among the older adult population is increasing, and dependence on prescription painkillers has naturally followed.

Older Adults and Prescription Opioid Risk Factors

Older adults are uniquely susceptible to the use of opioids due to the number of health conditions they could be dealing with. That, in combination with chronic pain, makes this population prime candidates for prescription opioids. When doctors make the decision to prescribe analgesic drugs to any population, they are tasked with weighing the potential benefits with the consequences. Due to the age of this population, doctors may make the decision to prescribe these opioids because, in their mind, the benefit of managing their patient’s chronic pain outweighs the potential consequence of addiction. 

Other potential risk factors for opioid addiction in older adults include loneliness, conversations surrounding death, and general life stressors. As we increase in age, the reality of death becomes more prominent and a common topic of conversation, and with loved ones and friends nearing the end of life, it can feel overwhelming to think about this topic. When loved ones pass away, this increases feelings of loneliness and isolation and often results in a person seeking comfort from other areas of life. Older adults are also dealing with general life stressors as they navigate a potential loss of independence, a changing body and mind, and preparation for their own end of life. All of these factors can increase the likelihood of addiction to a substance such as a prescription opioid. 

Rising Opioid Use in Older Adults

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 4 and 9 percent of older adults, aged 65 and older, use prescription opioids to manage their pain. The same source reports that opioid prescriptions for older adults increased by a factor of nine.

Opioids are classified as Schedule II drugs, emphasizing their highly addictive qualities and potential for dependence. The dangers of using opioids to manage pain are widely known, but doctors still prescribe these drugs regularly. 

Opioid Prescriptions During COVID-19

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the DEA limited the prescribing of opioids by requiring health care providers to meet patients in person prior to providing this prescription. As the need for telehealth services increased during the pandemic, these laws were adjusted, and providers were able to prescribe controlled substances, including opioids, through telehealth visits and without the need to meet in person. This has increased the risk of abuse of these drugs, as there is an increased potential for medical professionals to miss indications of substance abuse when conducting appointments online. While the requirements state that telehealth visits must utilize audio and visual components, there is still a higher risk of oversight in these types of visits. 

Substance Use Disorder in Advanced Ages

While the prevalence of substance use disorders is more widely acknowledged in younger populations, older adults seeking treatment for an opioid use disorder is becoming a more pressing issue. According to the NIH, the number of older adults who sought treatment between 2013-2015 increased by 54%. During this same time frame, the percentage of this population using heroin more than doubled. Researchers attribute this increase, in part, to the older adult population switching from misusing opioids to this cheaper drug. 

Addiction Treatment for Older Adults

The older adult population presents with a unique set of risk factors and requires a team of professionals specializing in the treatment of this group of individuals. Older adults are managing a variety of symptoms, including chronic pain and mental health struggles, adding to the complexity of their cases. While these factors can make treatment more challenging, our team at Pine Grove Behavioral Health is well-equipped to meet your loved ones where they are to ensure age-appropriate treatment. 
Our specialized program for older adults will help your loved ones thrive as they learn to live without depending on prescription opioids. There is hope for your loved one. Contact our team today to learn more about our programming specifically for older adults.

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