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Overdose Deaths of Older Americans Quadrupled in the Past Two Decades – and Most Were Accidents

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Just a few months ago here on the Blog, we brought you this troubling story about a problem called “polypharmacy” – a situation we described as “a chronic case of nationwide medication overload.” Now a new report shows just how dire the consequences of poorly-managed prescriptions can be.

In our earlier Blog post published last February, we cited this recent article from the NextAvenue website, written by freelance journalist Barbara Mantel. “The trend of doctors over-prescribing prescription drugs to seniors isn’t new, but it is on the rise,” we wrote at the time. “Research shows that seniors who take too many prescription drugs are at far greater risk of severe side effects that can lead to hospitalization and even death.”

Tragically, that prediction has proved to be accurate, as this new article just published in the Washington Post will attest. Written by reporter Linda Searing, the report reveals that drug overdose deaths among U.S. seniors quadrupled between 2002 and 2021, with at least part of the blame due to multiple prescriptions. Only about 1 in 8 of the overdoses was intentional, the data shows. Moreover, while some deaths involved illicit drugs, many were the consequence of poorly-handled prescription drugs.

Older Populations Are Taking More Drugs Than Ever

In the February article, NextAvenue reporter Mantel revealed that over 40 percent of Americans age 65 and older take five or more prescription drugs (the definition of polypharmacy).  That percentage has tripled over the past two decades. Almost 20 percent of older adults take ten drugs or more.

There are several reasons for this epidemic of over-prescription, and we suggest you check out the original Blog article for details. The problem, as we wrote at the time, is that older Americans are particularly susceptible to polypharmacy. Because aging can increase the risk of developing or worsening chronic conditions, multiple medications are sometimes necessary, but the risks are frightening.

“Research shows that each additional medication raises a person’s risk of suffering an adverse drug event by 7 to 10 percent,” said reporter Mantel. “Such events send as many as 750 older Americans to the hospital each day.”

Stunning Rise in Senior Overdose Deaths

Turning to the more recent Washington Post article, we can see just what the consequences of mishandling prescription drugs can look like.

Reporter Linda Searing quotes this troubling statistic at the top of her article: “Overdose fatalities among older Americans climbed in recent years, with 6,702 U.S. residents 65 and older succumbing in 2021, according to research published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the rate of fatal overdoses in the 65 and older age range has quadrupled. What was 3 deaths per 100,000 people in 2002 has climbed to 12 deaths per 100,000 people in 2021. “Data indicates that 83 percent were accidental, 13 percent were intentional (suicide), 4 percent were undetermined and 0.07 percent (five deaths) were homicides,” Searing writes.

Among those who overdosed, the type of drug involved was also notable: 57 percent of the deaths involved an opioid, 39 percent involved a stimulant, and 18 percent involved a mix of both. “Of unintentional overdoses,” Searing continues, “74 percent stemmed from illicit drugs, such as fentanyl, heroin, cocaine or methamphetamines. But 68 percent of intentional overdoses involved prescription drugs, such as antidepressants, antiepileptics, benzodiazepines, sedative-hypnotics and opioids.”

Opioid Dangers on Top of Too Many Prescriptions

This is where the connection to polypharmacy comes in. The study noted that half of Medicare enrollees now take four or more prescription drugs every single day. Older adults are also likely to be prescribed opioids to help alleviate their chronic pain or recover from surgery, according to the Administration for Community Living, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“This can be problematic,” Searing writes, “because medications can have a stronger effect in older people and drugs leave their systems more slowly than they do in younger people. The CDC reports that the number of drug overdose deaths is larger among younger adults, but the overdose death rates are increasing the fastest among those 65 and older.”

She adds, “The researchers say their study’s findings illustrate the need for more mental health and substance-use programs aimed at older people.”

Rajiv: Seniors Need the Right Physicians for Proper Care

“The American healthcare system is a study in opposites,” Rajiv Nagaich says in response to this story. “On one hand you have the best research facilities, the best medical schools, and the most sophisticated biotech industry in the world. But on the other hand, we’re chronically over-prescribing medicines as if a pill were the answer to every ill. We’re not living longer, healthier lives. Where is the disconnect?” he wonders aloud.

In Rajiv’s view, there are many culprits in this sad equation. “Let’s face it,” he states, “much of American health care revolves completely around the health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry. These multi-billion-dollar companies make a lot more money keeping you sick than keeping you well. What that means,” he adds, “is that you can’t wait around for a magic pill or a magic surgery or a new government program to help you preserve your health. This is one area where you have got to take charge of your own longevity!”

Rajiv’s recommendations: find the right physician, ideally a board-certified geriatrician who understands the physiology and psychology of aging. Make sure your health insurance plan doesn’t just treat you when you’re sick but also helps you stay well. “And for heaven’s sake,” says Rajiv, “you know you need to get some exercise, stay socially engaged, and eat right. The best time to start is ten years ago – the second-best time is today! No more excuses!”

Contact us and we’ll help you get the right answers when it comes to finding the right doctor and staying well. We can’t solve the problem of out-of-control prescriptions, but we can take charge of our own healthcare. It’s about time we did.

Breaking News: Rajiv’s New Book is Here!

We have big news! The long-awaited book by Rajiv Nagaich, called Your Retirement: Dream or Disaster, has been released and is now available to the public.  As a friend of AgingOptions, we know you’ll want to get your copy and spread the word.

You’ve heard Rajiv say it repeatedly: 70 percent of retirement plans will fail. If you know someone whose retirement turned into a nightmare when they were forced into a nursing home, went broke paying for care, or became a burden to their families – and you want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you – then this book is must-read.

Through stories, examples, and personal insights, Rajiv takes us along on his journey of expanding awareness about a problem that few are willing to talk about, yet it’s one that results in millions of Americans sleepwalking their way into their worst nightmares about aging. Rajiv lays bare the shortcomings of traditional retirement planning advice, exposes the biases many professionals have about what is best for older adults, and much more.

Rajiv then offers a solution: LifePlanning, his groundbreaking approach to retirement planning. Rajiv explains the essential planning steps and, most importantly, how to develop the framework for these elements to work in concert toward your most deeply held retirement goals.

Your retirement can be the exciting and fulfilling life you’ve always wanted it to be. Start by reading and sharing Rajiv’s important new book. And remember, Age On, everyone!

(originally reported at www.washingtonpost.com)

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