The story has been all over the news in recent months, headline after headline declaring that America is in the midst of a severe epidemic of addiction to painkillers. “From wonder drug to abuse epidemic,” says CNN. “The worst drug crisis in American history,” says PBS’s Frontline. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, during 2014 (the most recent year available), “more people died from drug overdoses…than in any year on record, and the majority of drug overdose deaths (more than six out of ten) involved an opioid.
With this sobering backdrop we were interested to hear this story just a few weeks ago on National Public Radio that warns of the danger of opioids among seniors – many of whom find themselves hooked on painkillers after undergoing medical procedures. “As the nation grapples with a devastating opioid epidemic,” says NPR, “concerns have primarily focused on young people buying drugs on the street. But many elderly people in America also have a drug problem.”
This is important news to all seniors and their families, because senior patients may tend to be more trusting of their physicians and less likely to ask tough questions about the dangers of prescription drug overdoses. In the words of the NPR story, “Over the past several decades, physicians have increasingly prescribed older patients medication to address chronic pain from arthritis, cancer, neurological diseases and other illnesses that become more common in later life. And sometimes those opioids hurt more than they help.”
The NPR article references a recent study of Medicare recipients. In this study, about 15 percent of respondents had been prescribed an opioid painkiller upon their discharge from the hospital. But in a troubling finding, three months later more than 40 percent of these patients were still taking these highly addictive drugs. In the National Public Radio feature we meet one such patient, a retired 70-year-old man in Arizona who had undergone surgery to fix a painful, debilitating ear problem. But after the surgery the pain got worse. His doctors prescribed Oxycontin, a common opioid, which helped with the pain at first, but over time had less and less effect. He kept increasing his dosage and ended up “confused, depressed, and still in pain.”
“I was effectively housebound,” he says in the NPR article. “I couldn’t play golf anymore. I couldn’t go to social events with my friends or my wife.” He says he began to obsess about when he could take his next dose – and when this happened he knew he was in trouble. The irony is that this patient was not an abuser: he had followed all the rules and done exactly what his doctor told him to do. He finally and reluctantly entered a rehab program where it took him a week to get over the intense flu-like symptoms that come with opioid withdrawal, symptoms that can hit seniors with particular severity.
Ironically, back in 2009 (according to NPR) the American Geriatric Society came out strongly in favor of opioids for seniors, believing that the risk of addiction among elderly patients was low. Today those guidelines are no longer in use, “but opioid medications remain a crucial tool to treat pain in older people. And most people are able to take opioids in small doses for short periods of time without a problem.” Doctors say the important thing is to try non-addictive pain solutions first, and to keep any opioid dosages to an absolute minimum. There is real urgency to this situation, says NPR, because the problem is only getting worse: the rate of hospitalization related to opioid overuse among seniors has quintupled in the past two decades.
Here at AgingOptions we find this rate of over-prescription of dangerous drugs truly deplorable. It’s just one more reason why it is essential for senior patients that you put yourself in the capable hands of a board-certified geriatrician who understands the particular health needs and vulnerabilities of older adults. Contact our office during the business week and let us provide you with some recommended geriatric physicians in your area. This is one of the most important steps you can take toward comprehensive health care planning.
When it comes to retirement planning, we also have the ideal solution: our LifePlanning Seminars. These free information-packed sessions are highly popular, and there’s a good reason why. At a LifePlanning Seminar you’ll learn not only how to plan for your health care needs but also your financial security, your legal protection, your family communication and your ideal housing choices. These components of a good plan all fit together like pieces of a puzzle – but with the AgingOptions team as your guide, the process is neither puzzling nor confusing. Having a LifePlan in place and following it is the single most important thing you can do to secure a fruitful and happy retirement.
Ready to take the next step? We’ll see you at a LifePlanning Seminar soon. Click here for dates, times, locations and online registration or contact us during the week and we’ll assist you.
(originally reported at www.npr.org)