Prescription drug abuse is when a person doesn’t take his or her prescription medicine properly. Prescription drug abuse is a term usually reserved for improper use of medicines that are categorized as “controlled substances” by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Examples include many pain, anxiety, and sleep medicine. People who abuse prescription drugs may take more medicine than their doctors instructed, take medicine when it is not needed, or mix the medicine with alcohol or other drugs. This can lead to serious problems, such as addiction, drug interactions, or even overdose.
Not all prescription drugs cause addiction. Most prescription drugs are safe and effective when you follow your doctor’s directions for how to take the medicine.
Older adults are at risk for prescription drug abuse because they take more prescription medicines than other age groups. Americans 65 years of age or older make up only 13% of the U.S. population, yet they consume approximately 33% of all prescription drugs.
Older adults are also at risk for prescription drug abuse because they often take more than 1 prescription medicine each day. This increases the risk for mistakes when taking the medicines and for drug interactions.
In addition, growing older slows down your liver’s ability to filter medicines out of your body. This means that an older adult might become addicted to or have side effects from a prescription drug at a lower dose than a younger adult.
A person can abuse any type of prescription drug, but elderly adults commonly take 2 types of medicines that have a high potential for addiction:
Other prescription drugs used to control pain or treat sleeping problems may also cause addiction.
If you care for or spend time with an older adult, pay attention to his or her medicines and behavior. A person who is addicted to a prescription drug may:
If you suspect that an older adult is abusing a prescription drug, talk to the doctor who prescribed the medicine. Tell him or her about your concerns. The doctor will determine whether your loved one actually is abusing medicine or addicted and will help your loved one get treatment.
The treatment for prescription drug abuse depends on what drug is being abused, severity of the addiction, and risk of withdrawal symptoms. Treatment may include counseling, medicine, or both. Your loved one’s doctor will help him or her find the right treatment.
Drug Abuse and the Elderly by Johns Hopkins Medicine Health Alerts ( April 17, 2012, http://www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com/reports/prescription_drugs/3363-1.html)
Seniors and Prescription Drug Addiction by AgingCare ( April 17, 2012, http://www.agingcare.com/Articles/Seniors-and-Prescription-Drug-Addiction-133459.htm)
Elderly at Risk for Prescription Drug Abuse by The Partnership at DrugFree.org ( April 17, 2012, http://www.drugfree.org/join-together/addiction/elderly-at-risk-for-prescription-drug-abuse)
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff