Misuse of Pharmaceutical Drugs by Older Adults

The face of drug addiction is changing. While many associate drug addiction with young people tempted into an alternative lifestyle by the experience of getting high, recent rises in pharmaceutical drug misuse have resulted in addiction in unlikely segments of the population.

Many individuals who become addicted to pharmaceutical drugs initiate use of the drug with a legitimate health issue, such as chronic pain. An opiate painkiller is prescribed, but the patient quickly finds that increasing doses of the drug are needed to maintain the same level of pain relief.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) provides regular reports about trends in drug use and abuse. A report detailing trends in pharmaceutical misuse and abuse was recently released providing specific information about older adults during 2009, and emergency department visits related to pharmaceutical drugs.

The report finds that there has been a sharp increase in the number of emergency department since 2004, with 115,798 visits in that year, jumping to 300.082 visits in 2009. The number reflects a 159 percent increase in such visits.

The population of this age group has increased over time, so the number of emergency department visits would increase as a result of the growth. However, the increases cannot be fully explained by population growth.

There was especially an increase noted among older adults in the abuse of oxycodone, rising 45 percent between 2008 and 2009. Oxycodone is a narcotic pain reliever.

Overall emergency department visits involving pain relievers increased 27 percent from 2008 to 2009, from 111,360 visits to 141,709. Narcotic pain relievers increased 17 percent in related emergency department visits. While acetaminophen did not account for a large number of visits, the visits increased 60 percent from 2008 to 2009.

There was also a large increase in visits related to anti-anxiety drugs and medications to treat insomnia. Between 2008 and 2009, there was an increase of 18 percent, from 81,413 to 96,019 visits.

The highest percentage of emergency department visits related to pharmaceutical drugs was among those aged 50 to 54. Among those above the age of 50 who were at the emergency department, approximately half were treated and released, and about one-third were admitted to the hospital. Approximately 53 percent of the visits were by females.

Among those who were admitted to a hospital, 71,208 were sent to an inpatient unit, while 25,995 were sent to an intensive care unit (66 percent and 24 percent, respectively). An additional 10,518, equating to 10 percent, were admitted to a detoxification treatment center.

The surge in emergency department visits among older adults indicates that there is a need for targeted education and prevention efforts among this segment of the population. Physicians should also be aware of the likelihood that a patient may struggle with recall when informing them of other medications they are taking that might interfere with a painkiller or anxiety medicine.