Opioid Addiction: Not Just a Young Person’s Problem


When you think about the kind of person who becomes addicted to pills, who comes to mind? If your first thought is a tattooed and pierced young person buying oxycontin on a dark street corner, you’re not alone. You might be surprised to learn that older Americans are using narcotic pain pills in surprisingly high numbers. Many are even becoming addicted.

In my elder care law practice, we’re seeing a growing number of cases involving seniors who are addicted to opioids. In many cases, their drug dependence started with a legitimate prescription from a doctor.

The numbers tell the story.

  • Almost one-third of all Medicare patients — nearly 12 million people — were prescribed opioid painkillers by their physicians in 2015.

  • That same year, 2.7 million Americans over age 50 abused painkillers, meaning they took them for reasons or in amounts beyond what their doctors prescribed.

  • The hospitalization rate due to opioid abuse has quintupled for those 65 and older in the past two decades.

Opioid addiction is not just a young person’s problem. That data shows that seniors are more likely to be prescribed opioids than any other population.

No one should be surprised. Based on the way physicians prescribe opioids, dependence can set in quickly—after just a few days. Nearly 14,000 people over age 45 died from an opioid overdose in 2015 — 42 percent of all such deaths in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The actual number of deaths is likely much higher because a death due to an opioid overdose is often attributed to something else like a heart attack, stroke, or fall.

The situation we’re facing today started in 1995 when the Federal Drug Administration approved OxyContin. Since then, pharmaceutical companies have been marketing opioids aggressively to physicians who prescribe= OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet and other opioid painkillers to older patients suffering from chronic conditions.

In 2009, the American Geriatric Society encouraged physicians to use opioids to treat moderate to severe pain in older patients, citing evidence that seniors were less susceptible to addiction. By 2012, addiction rates and the number of overdose deaths had soared, even though the American Geriatric Society eventually revised their position on opioid use.

CDC guidelines recommending that doctors drug-test their patients before and during opioid therapy have done little to discourage doctors from overprescribing these drugs. A 2016 survey by the nonprofit National Safety Council found that 99 percent of physicians prescribe opioids beyond the dosage limit of three days recommended by the CDC.

As people age, they can become more at risk for dependence or overdoses. Older adults are more likely to have serious pain. Kidney and liver function slows with age, increasing the time drugs remain in the system. Memory loss can make it harder to manage opioid medication effectively. It’s a problem families don’t talk about because there’s still this idea that drug addiction is a moral failing instead of a chronic medical condition that requires treatment. By the time families come to see us about their concerns about an elderly loved one, an opioid addiction is often one of several issues that need to be addressed. Fortunately, we’re able to steer families to the right kind of help.

For more information about Kimbrough Law, call (706) 850-6910 or visit our website.

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