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Growing Opioid Crisis is Snaring an Alarming – and Increasing – Number of Seniors

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We just discovered a highly disturbing article on the website HealthDay that puts a new spin on today’s chorus of headlines about the nation’s opioid crisis. According to two new government reports, a growing number of seniors are falling prey to this insidious category of highly addictive painkillers.

Opioid Crisis Increasing but Under-Recognized

As reported in HealthDay, the studies just released by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) “reveal that millions of older Americans are now filling prescriptions for many different opioid medications at the same time, while hundreds of thousands are winding up in the hospital with opioid-related complications.” An official from the AHRQ called the problem of opioid use by seniors “growing and under-recognized.” One of the reports cited by HealthDay analyzed the growing incidence of opioid-related hospitalizations among seniors, while the other focused on the rising frequency of opioid prescriptions being issued to older patients. In both reports the news was bad: seniors are at greater risk from opioids than ever.

The HealthDay report said that the increase in the use of prescription painkillers is directly related to chronic pain, which is common among seniors. “Eight in ten [seniors] struggle with multiple health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis and depression,” the article reports. “To cope, many seniors take opioids, which inevitably raises the risk for side effects and negative drug interactions.” The statistics speak for themselves. Among seniors during 2015, complications related to opioids caused almost 125,000 hospitalizations, a 34 percent increase in just five years. (During that same period between 2010 and 2015 the number of non-opioid-related hospitalizations among seniors actually dropped by 17 percent.)

Opioid-Related ER Visits Also on the Rise

Opioids also triggered more than 36,000 senior visits to emergency rooms in 2015, those same statistics show. That represented a shocking 74 percent increase over five years, says AHRQ, compared with a mere 17 percent rise in non-opioid-related ER visits by seniors during that same period.

Concern about the number of seniors using – or over-using – opioids is hardly new. In this January 2017 article on the Kaiser Health News website, reporter Jenny Gold termed the decision whether or not to prescribe opioids to seniors “a balancing act.” Gold wrote, “Over the past decade, a growing number of seniors have been prescribed opioids including hydrocodone, codeine and oxycodone. A recent study found that in 2011, 15 percent of seniors were prescribed an opioid when they were discharged from the hospital.” She cited all the well-known dangers for seniors taking these drugs including not only addiction but also breathing problems, confusion and interference with other medications. (One report said that seniors taking opioid medications are also four to five times more likely to suffer a fall or fracture than those taking a non-opioid pain medication, Kaiser states.)

But the article claims opioids have an important place in treating seniors. These drugs “can also be a critical tool in treating debilitating pain that leaves seniors immobilized and homebound,” says Kaiser Health News. One geriatrician told Kaiser that “prescribing opioids to seniors is often about helping them maintain their independence.” In other words, these doctors claim, when used carefully opioids may have a positive but limited role in geriatric medicine.

Docs Prescribed Opioids to One-Fifth of U.S. Seniors

Still, the concern raised by the HealthDay article, and the issue that should set off alarm bells among families of seniors, is not merely the use of opioids but their overuse. In analyzing the number of seniors receiving opioid prescriptions, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality made the worrisome discovery that one senior in five – nearly 10 million seniors – filled a prescription for at least one opioid drug between 2015 and 2016, and about seven percent actually took four prescription opioid drugs or more. Adding to the irony, it seems that those receiving the most heavily subsidized medical insurance had the highest increases. “Frequent use was found to be notably more common among seniors who were either poor or low-income, insured through Medicare or another form of public insurance, and/or residents of rural areas,” says the HealthDay report.

Dr. Anita Everett, chief medical officer for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, told HealthDay that the findings about seniors and opioids shouldn’t come as a surprise. For one thing, we tend not to think of grandparents as those with a drug problem, even those with chronic pain. Then, she added, you have “the generation of physicians that were taught that opioid medication, when used for pain, was not likely to become addictive.” The result, says Dr. Everett, is a senior citizen opioid problem.

Better Options, Better Advice

There are several possible solutions, experts say. First, physicians should look for non-addictive or even non-medicinal forms of pain relief for seniors and only prescribe the minimum dosage when opioids are the best treatment. Second, family and friends need to watch for signs of a problem, realizing that a combination of shame, stigma and social isolation may keep seniors from admitting the problem and getting the help they need. We also urge seniors and their families to seek out the advice of a local geriatrician. These specialists are well-trained to provide seniors with the type of medical care that’s perfectly suited to the unique needs of an aging patient. Call us at AgingOptions if you would like a referral to a geriatrician near you.

Speaking of good information, we also encourage you to take a broader look at your entire plan for retirement and begin now to gather the information that will help you fulfill your retirement dreams. Choosing the right medical coverage is just one piece of the puzzle. Is your financial plan also in order? Have you planned for where and how you want to live, not just now but in the years to come? Are your loved ones supportive of your retirement plans and do you have the proper legal framework in place? The only type of truly comprehensive retirement plan we know of that accomplishes all this is a LifePlan from AgingOptions. You’re invited to join Rajiv Nagaich and find out more about this breakthrough in retirement planning, at a LifePlanning Seminar near you. These highly popular events are information-packed and absolutely free.

For a complete calendar of upcoming LifePlanning Seminars, visit our Live Events page where you can register for the seminar of your choice. Don’t put it off! Instead, face the future with confidence through the power of an AgingOptions LifePlan. Age on!

(originally reported at https://consumer/

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