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Opioid Epidemic Among Seniors Is on the Rise

Mention opioid addiction, and it conjures images of strung-out addicts living for one thing and one thing only: their next fix.

Many bear that zombie-like, strung-out look, hanging out on street corners or perhaps passed out in a car with their kids in the back seat.

But much less visible in the saturation media coverage of the opioid epidemic are elderly opioid addicts, often suffering in obscurity – alone, desperate, sometimes scared at the hold their drug of choice has on them, and the toll it’s taking. Indeed, the National Center on Drug Abuse reports substance abuse in older adults often goes unrecognized and therefore untreated.

Experts say a growing the number seniors suffering addictions to opioids has soared in recent years. None of them ever planned it this way. They started taking meds not to get high, as so many youths have done, with devastating consequences, but to ease excruciating chronic pain resulting from musculoskeletal conditions like fibromyalgia, cancers and neurological diseases and post-surgery pain after operations such as hip and knee replacements. As millions of seniors know, the pain from these conditions can be so severe; you can focus on nothing else and you seek – more than anything else – relief.

Physicians often prescribe opioids to seniors so they can get that relief. The American Geriatric Society strongly endorsed opioids in 2009 to treat seniors suffering severe pain. AGS noted that seniors are less likely than others to become addicted to the medications.

Since then, however, senior opioid addiction has alarmed many experts, including then-Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who wrote in an open letter to all of America’s doctors in 2016, "Nearly two decades ago, we were encouraged to be more aggressive about treating pain, often without enough training and support to do so safely. This coincided with heavy marketing of opioids to doctors. Many of us were even taught — incorrectly — that opioids are not addictive when used as pain relief. The results have been devastating."

Alarmingly, at the same time, senior hospitalizations and other in-patient treatment for opioid addictions have soared, amid a growing realization of the risks of addiction among the elderly.

Overdose deaths among older addicts, too, have soared. In fact, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in a February 2017 study that in 2015, those ages 55 to 64 are more than twice as likely to die of a drug overdose than those ages 15 to 24.

The AARP revealed in a special report last year that 2.7 million people over age 50 had abused painkillers in 2015

The report, echoing many treatment experts, urged more treatment options for senior addicts, as most programs are geared toward younger ones.

But even with the dearth of treatment tailored specifically to senior addicts, evidence-backed approaches with a long track record among younger addicts have been found to be equally effective for seniors.

The vast majority of in-patient treatments – as well as much of outpatient therapy – rely on support groups. So make the phone call to a treatment program. Look up a local Narcotics Anonymous support group. Or call an addiction hotline, or tap into the vast trove of online resources to help.

Addiction is a formidable foe, but, with help, seniors can beat it.