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Why Seniors Get Addicted to Drugs

For older people who have chronic conditions or find themselves in a lot of pain temporarily, medicine can be a godsend that vastly improves quality of life. But senior citizens may find it all too easy to abuse prescription and over-the-counter drugs. Just because such medicines are bought in drugstores rather than on the street, say, doesn’t mean that they are any less dangerous. Overuse of drugs can lead to additional health problems, family problems, and even fatalities.

According to the SeniorHealth division of the National Institutes of Health, recent reports show increased hospitalizations and emergency-room visits by older people because of improper drug use. Experts say that the most commonly abused drugs are painkillers (Vicodin, OxyContin), depressants (Xanax, Valium) and stimulants (Concerta, Adderall). According to SeniorHealth, older adults admitted to hospitals most often because of an overdose or withdrawal symptoms from drugs.

Given the circumstances of most seniors’ lives, it’s easy to see why people can find themselves with a drug habit. Millions of older adults take medicines that treat chronic health conditions. While most people take that medicine correctly, others who have vision or memory problems might take the wrong dose, the NIH says. Visual or cognitive troubles can make it hard to take medicine correctly, especially if different kinds of medicine are taken at different parts of the day. Additionally, people may be going to more than one doctor without having any of them aware of every medication the patient is taking.

There may also be intentional abuse, SeniorHealth says, which occurs when a person deliberately uses medicine the wrong way by taking too large a dose, or combines the medicine with alcohol or other drugs. Often, the NIH experts say, people do this to feel better or to calm down.

Anxiety or sadness over life events such as the death of a spouse, retirement of failing health may also factor into misuse. Additionally, aging bodies and brains may be affected more than younger ones.

How can you recognize the signs of addiction?

It’s not always easy. SeniorHealth says that warning signs, including sleep problems, falls, anxiety and depression, may also be signs of other health problems. So doctors, family and friends may not always realize there’s a problem.

There may be behavioral differences as well: A person can suddenly start doubting that a medication is “really working” at its present dosage, or complain that a doctor refuses to write a prescription.

Other warning signs of a substance abuse problem or addiction, according to SeniorHealth, may include:

mood swings

rapid increases in the amount of medication needed

frequent requests for refills

showing more or less energy than usual

"doctor shopping" (moving from provider to provider in an effort to get several prescriptions for the same medication)

use of more than one pharmacy

false or forged prescriptions.

If you’re worried about a loved one, asking some simple questions can help determine whether there’s a problem. The SeniorHealth experts cite the CAGE questionnaire, originally developed for alcohol, has been modified to include drug use and has been tested in older adults with some success. CAGE includes four basic questions, with the modified version asking about drinking and drug use:

Have you felt you ought to cut down on your drinking or drug use?

Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking or drug use?

Have you felt bad or guilty about your drinking or drug use?

Have you ever had a drink or used drugs first thing in the morning to steady your nerves, get rid of a hangover or, get the day started (as an eye-opener)?

The NIH says that a yes answer to even one question can indicate a potential substance-abuse problem. If you’re worried that medication might be taking over your own life, ask yourself the same questions. If you or someone you know might have a problem with substance abuse or possible addiction, talk to a doctor, drug counselor of other health care provider. Coming to terms with the truth of substance abuse is an essential step toward getting badly needed help.

For more information on senior health issues, visit www.nih.seniorhealth.gov.