Top Prescription Drugs Abused by the Elderly

Prescription Drug abuse and misuse among the elderly is one of America’s least recognized yet fastest growing problems. As baby boomers age and the physical and psychological factors make them more vulnerable to addiction, elderly pharmaceutical abuse will continue to rise. Already we see a steep incline of abuse: the number of emergency department (ED) visits involving prescription drug abuse among individuals over age 50 increased 121% between 2004 and 2008, according to the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN).

Although drug abuse is difficult to detect in the elderly, DAWN’s 2010 report on the number of ED visits involving prescription drugs provides a picture about the most commonly abused prescription drugs. (Keep in mind the report only ranks the drugs in order of popularity; it does not measure the extent to which they are abused.) The following list is based from this DAWN 2010 report.

1. Vicodin, Oxycontin, and other Opiates

ED Visits:

Pain relievers account for over 100,000 emergency department visits.  Of those, almost 87,000 are from narcotics.

Common opioids include:

  • Morphine
  • OxyContin
  • Percocet
  • Vicodin
  • Dilaudid
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine

About Opioids

Opioids are among the most commonly prescribed drugs to the elderly. Opioids work by blocking to the pain receptors in the brain, making them a powerful and effective form of pain control. Not only are they effective, but opioids are addictive in that they produce euphoria by increasing dopamine levels and stimulate senses of pleasure. Many narcotics also carry the risk for liver toxicity due to their acetaminophen content, such as Vicodin and Percocet. Regardless, individuals who take pain medication for a legitimate injury and are scrupulous in following doctor’s orders have a slim chance of developing addiction.

2. Valium, Xanax, and other Anti-anxiety drugs

ED visits:

Drugs for anxiety and insomnia are involved in 32% of ED visits (a little over 81,000 visits). Among those, Benzodiazepines account for about 65,000 of cases. 

Common Anti-anxiety drugs include:

  • Valium (diazepam)
  • Xanax (alprazolam)
  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)

About Anti-anxiety drugs

Also called tranquilizers, anti-anxiety drugs act on the central nervous system to mitigate symptoms of anxiety and nervousness, stabilizes and mood and improving sleep. They work by altering the balance of natural body chemicals (GABA, serotonin, or noradrenaline) and slow brain activity. Again, when used properly, addiction is not a problem, but taking larger doses (or typical doses on a daily period) will lead to tolerance. Suddenly stopping these medications result in severe discomfort, prompting the individual to continue taking it.

Other Drugs

Abuse of drugs other than opioids or depressants is rare. The DAWN report also lists other medications involved in ED visits, shown below.

  • Antidepressants (Zoloft, Lexapro, Prozac): account for 8.6% of ED visits
  • Anticonvulsants (Tegretol, Dilantin, Klonopin) : account for 5.4% of ED visits
  • Antipsychotics (Ritalin, Ripseridal, Thorazine)  : account for 5.3% of ED visits
  • Muscle Relaxants (Baclofen, Valium, Tizanidine): account for 5.1% of ED visits

How do I know if I’m addicted?

Substance abuse in the elderly is hard to detect, but certain behaviors could be red flags of an addiction, such as

  • Taking medication at different times and in different doses from what is prescribed
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Wanting to stay alone much of the time
  • Lack of interest in usual activities
  • Memory lapse after taking a medication
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Change of mood: irritability, depression

If you or a loved one shows the symptoms of addiction, do not hesitate to get help. Confide in your doctor, or call a local rehab center for professional advice. You can check out our pages and available centers on our webpage or get started by reading “I am Ready for Help, What Now?”

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