As the body ages, it often aches. In the United States, 81 percent of adults over 65 endure multiple chronic conditions such as arthritis, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes. There also can be emotional pain from the loss of relatives and close friends, and concerns about the continued ability to live independently.
For those whose physical ailments prove almost paralyzing and chronic, health providers often prescribe opioid painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone. But that can lead to trouble. Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid crisis a public-health emergency. The department has spent almost $900 million on treatment services and other initiatives, but still more and more Americans are dying of overdoses on opioids—in the forms of prescription pain pills, heroin, or synthetic drugs. While older adults are not the age group most affected by the crisis, the population of older adults who misuse opioids is projected to double from 2004 to 2020.
A lot of factors contribute to this rise among the elderly. Many undergo several surgeries and are prescribed opioids they use for a long time, which heightens their chances of developing a use disorder. Some take more than they need, because the opioids they’ve been prescribed aren’t holding their pain at bay. Older adults of color, who face more barriers to getting the medications they need for pain, may get prescriptions from friends or family without proper instructions. But a recent poll highlights just how widespread another factor might be: doctors failing to warn their own patients about the risks that come with prescription pain relievers.