Prescription Drug Addiction Among the Elderly – Guest Post by Helen Gent

Are you an older adult struggling with prescription addiction? If you’ve been given medication by your doctor but you’re finding it difficult to stop taking it or you need ever increasing amounts to get the same benefit, you’re not alone. Prescription addiction is now so common that overdoses and deaths from drugs the doctor ordered swamp those caused by classical street drugs like heroin. Every year, 36,000 Americans die due to prescription drug overdose – most of those deaths are the result of medicines, not the highly publicized illicit substances that are heard about in the media.

Contrary to popular belief, addictions are not mainly the domain of experimenting teenagers – they can affect people of any age and from every walk of life. Older people can be more at risk of developing dependence on medicinals because advancing age brings with it health problems and so they are likely to be exposed to more medications than the young. Despite the fact that people over the age of 65 only comprise 13% of the total population, yet they take one third of the prescriptions for outpatient medications.
Increased susceptibility to various illnesses and prescribing of multiple drugs by physicians (known as polypharmacy) make dependence and other adverse outcomes more likely.

Elderly on Cocktail of Drugs

57% of older women and 44% of older men aged 65 plus are taking five or more medications every week. 12% of both women and men take 10 or more medications. Physicians may not check for interactions between various drugs, leading to more symptoms for the patient and the use of more drugs, increasing the chance of overdose, confusion, misdiagnosis of dementia and falling accidents. Opiates are commonly used and can be extremely addictive but inappropriately prescribed. If a chronic pain condition such as osteoarthritis hasn’t been controlled properly, the patient may be tempted to take more than is recommended or to ask their doctor for a larger dose. Then they may find they cannot stop taking it. The path to prescription drug addiction is easier than than one might assume.

Be Pro-Active

Ask your doctor to check for contraindications (reasons why patients should not take medication) before you take it and make sure he checks for interactions with any other medicines or herbal remedies that you may be taking. Although doctors are supposed to do this routinely, sometimes they don’t. Make sure you read the patient information leaflet and familiarize yourself with the side-effects of your medication. If you develop new symptoms of illness it will be easier to identify whether they are the effects of the medicine and could prevent you from being given further prescriptions for drugs you don’t need.

If you have a chronic condition and medication isn’t helping, ask about alternatives such as massage therapy or hydrotherapy for back pain or surgery for hip pain.

Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Symptoms of addiction to opiates includes increased pain with higher doses, requiring the person to take more in order to achieve a therapeutic effect, drowsiness, slowed breathing, poor coordination, feeling ‘high’, constipation, nausea, mood swings, anxiety without cause or when the drug isn’t available, disruptions in sleep patterns. You may feel the need to go to multiple pharmacies or doctors to obtain more medication or tell the doctor you have lost your prescription so he orders more. In severe cases, addicted patients have been known to steal medication.
If you have noticed some of these symptoms in yourself, don’t be afraid to seek help. It is vital to speak up before your health is damaged.

Ask for a Medication Review

Make sure you ask for a review of your medication as it’s possible some of your illness symptoms may be medication side-effects. If you are taking multiple drugs, it’s important to double check that none of them interact with each other. You may be able to stop or reduce some of your prescriptions.
If you think you are addicted, your doctor can treat you by gradually decreasing the dose you take so that your body becomes accustomed to lesser amounts. Stopping gradually will avoid too many withdrawal symptoms and is safer.


Counseling is also available to help you gain the motivation to go through the detoxification process and to give you emotional support. Your physicians office may provide a counseling service or you could also find one via your church or through your place of work, if you have not yet retired. Various charities and organizations provide detox programs or therapy for people recovering from substance abuse and dependence, for instance, Ask an Addiction Counselor.


Prescription Drug Abuse, Older Adults, National Institute on Drug Abuse, accessed July 5, 2016.

Prescription Drugs are More Deadly than Street Drugs, Psychology Today, accessed July 5, 2016.

Preventing Polypharmacy in Older Adults, Medscape, accessed July 5, 2016.

Patients are Taking too Many Medications; It’s time to Fix That, Kevin MD, accessed July 5, 2016.

Prescription Drug Abuse, Mayo Clinic, accessed July 5, 2016.

How to Stop Cravings, 7 Tips From an Expert, Recovery, accessed July 5, 2016.

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