Prescription and Illicit Drug Abuse

Improper Use of Medications

Improper Use on the Rise

Taking a prescription medication as directed by a doctor is generally safe and effective and is what usually happens. But lately there has been a rise in the number of older adults who are using their medicines improperly, including for non-medical reasons, and suffering the consequences. Recent reports show increased hospitalizations and visits to emergency rooms by older people involving improper use of prescription and illicit drugs.

Painkillers, Depressants, and Stimulants

The types of prescription medications most commonly abused by people of any age are painkillers (such as Vicodin, OxyContin), depressants (such as Xanax, Valium), and stimulants (such as Concerta and Adderall). Hospital admissions for older adults were mostly linked to overdoses from pain medication and withdrawal symptoms from other addictive drugs such as sleeping pills.

Problems Taking Medications

Many older adults take medications that play an important role in treating various health conditions like pain and heart disease. Most take their medications properly, but some older adults have problems taking them the way they should. This includes unintentionally taking a medication the wrong way, as well as intentional abuse.

Unintentional Abuse

Some people accidentally take medicines incorrectly, often without knowing it or without intending to. They may forget to take their medicine, take it too often, or take the wrong amount.

As people get older, trouble with vision or memory can make it hard to use medications correctly. Taking lots of medications at different times of the day can be confusing. Another common problem is having more than one doctor who prescribes medicines, but no single doctor who monitors them and checks for any interactions.

Intentional Abuse

Intentional abuse occurs when a person knowingly uses prescription medications the wrong way, takes medicines not prescribed for them, or combines them with alcohol or illicit drugs. People may do this to feel good, to feel better, or to calm down.

Sometimes a big change, such as retirement, the death of a loved one, or failing health, can lead to loneliness, boredom, anxiety, or depression. That can prompt a person to begin, continue, or increase the abuse of medications or other drugs.

A person may think that taking the medicine is safe, no matter what, because a doctor prescribed it. But taking too much of a medication, or taking it in ways other than how the doctor ordered, is not safe.

Risks for Older Adults

Older adults may suffer serious consequences from even moderate drug abuse because of several risk factors. As the body ages, it cannot absorb and break down medications and drugs as easily as it used to. As a result, even when an older adult takes a medication properly, it may remain in the body longer than it would in a younger person. As people age, they may also become more sensitive to alcohol’s effects. For more information on the dangers of mixing alcohol and medicines, see “Alcohol Use and Older Adults."

Aging brains are also different than young ones and may be at greater risk for harmful drug effects (on memory or coordination, for example). Having other medical conditions (such as heart disease) and taking medications to treat them while abusing prescription drugs at the same time also present unique risks for older adults.

For tips on safe use of medicines for older adults, see “Taking Medicines Safely."