Seniors and Prescription Drug Abuse

Health News from Senior Healthcare Advisors

Prescription drug abuse happens when someone misuses their prescription medication. Prescription drug misuse can have serious medical consequences. It can happen so quickly that you may not even know you are slipping into a real problem. Anytime you take a medication differently than your doctor prescribed, you are running the risk of drug abuse and possibly prescription drug addiction. Taking your medicine with alcohol or taking someone else’s medicine are also forms of drug abuse.

The term “controlled medications” was coined by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) for medications with the potential for abuse or addiction. Anti-anxiety, pain, and sleep medications can fall into the “controlled substance” category. Over-taking, self-medicating, or mixing these drugs can lead to addiction, drug interactions, or even death by overdose. Plus, the agony of trying to get off of them is sheer terror. Drug interactions can be life threatening and/or make your prescribed medication less effective.

Most of the time prescription medications are effective and safe if you are following your physician’s directions for how to take your medicine. However, addiction can happen even when you do follow your doctor’s directions.

prescription drug abuse

Why are Seniors at Risk for Drug Abuse?

Most seniors who suffer from prescription drug abuse do so by accident. Older adults take more medications than any other age group, increasing their risk for making medication errors and drug abuse. Plus, as you get older your body slows down in its ability to filter and absorb medications. This means seniors are at a higher risk for drug abuse even when taking a lower dose than younger people.

Road to Improved Senior Health

Seniors are commonly prescribed two types of medication with a high potential for abuse and/or addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, two categories of prescription medications are frequently abused:

Opioid Painkillers

(Percocet, Vicodin, Fentanyl, Codeine, Tramadol, and OxyContin)

Percocet and Vicodin contain acetaminophen (Tylenol) which is toxic to your liver. WebMD (2022) reported individuals can become addicted to opioid painkillers in as short five days. Prescription Opioids cause a feeling of euphoria that quickly requires the user to take more in order to receive the same effect. One of the biggest problems associated with opioid abuse is the patient being uninformed. We get so used to hearing potential side effects of medications, that we can tune out some really important information.


(Xanax, Valium, Klonopin, Restoril, Serax, Ativan)

Benzodiazepines are used for the treatment of insomnia or sleep disorders, treat anxiety, and panic attacks. When a senior becomes addicted to benzodiazepines, it can be very difficult to recognize because the signs and symptoms of benzodiazepine addiction can closely resemble behaviors associated with aging. Memory loss and confusion are symptoms of both benzodiazepine abuse and aging.

Warning Signs of Senior Drug Abuse and/or Addiction

  • Doctor shopping or going to different doctors for the same medication.
  • Going to two different pharmacies to get the same prescription filled.
  • Taking more than the directed dosage of a medication.
  • Becoming angry or withdrawn.
  • Frequently talks about medicine.
  • Fearful of going anywhere without having their medication on their person.
  • Starts becoming confused or forgetful.
  • Starts making excuses for why they are taking more of a medicine or why they are still on the medication.
  • Hiding or sneaking medications
  • Keeps extra pills in their pocket or handbag
  • Have a history of treatment for substance abuse.
  • Changes in eating and sleep patterns
  • Decreased socialization
  • Increasing isolation
  • Poor hygiene
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Less family engagement
  • Missing appointments
  • Changes in hygiene

Things to Think About

If you are wondering if you are developing an issue around your medication regime or you know someone who you are concerned is over-medicating, contact a doctor immediately. Early intervention is essential for the treatment of drug abuse or addiction. For seniors, as with anyone, addiction can be catastrophic. Some medications such as benzodiazepines have withdrawals requiring hospitalization.

What to Ask the Doctor

  1. Are there any drug interactions with the medications I take?
  2. What are the potentials for abuse of my medications?
  3. Are any of my medications addictive?
  4. How do I know if I am having a problem?
  5. What are the symptoms of withdrawal from my medications?
  6. How should I organize my medicines to lower my chances of making any mistakes?

Seniors can build a tolerance to their medications and start increasing how much they are taking. The urge to keep it a secret out of fear you won’t get a refill, can keep increasing the chances of addiction and withdrawal. Addiction happens and it is nothing to be ashamed about. Tell someone if you are having increased thoughts about your medicines, not feeling their effects, or starting to hide your usage.

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