New tip sheet gives guidance for reporting on opioid use among the aging

About Liz Seegert

Liz Seegert (@lseegert), is AHCJ’s topic editor on aging. Her work has appeared in NextAvenue.com, Journal of Active Aging, Cancer Today, Kaiser Health News, the Connecticut Health I-Team and other outlets. She is a senior fellow at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University and co-produces the HealthCetera podcast.

Photo: Sharyn Morrow via Flickr

Photo: Sharyn Morrow via Flickr

Opioid addiction is at crisis levels in the United States. Over two million people are addicted to opioids, which include prescription painkillers, heroin and morphine. The total number of opioid pain relievers prescribed in the U.S. has skyrocketed in the past 25 years.

Data from the American Society of Pain Medicine (ASPM) indicate that of the 21.5 million Americans age 12 years or older who had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million involved prescription pain relievers.

The trend has led to more emergency department admissions and a tripling of overdose deaths.

For older patients, who often need to manage chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, joint replacement and diabetic nerve damage, the right prescription can be a lifesaver. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), however, calls substance abuse among adults age 60 years and older “one of the fastest growing health problems facing the country.” Diagnosis may be difficult or overlooked, because it can mimic symptoms of other age-related disorders.

Older women have particular challenges in coping with pain: they tend to live longer than men and may also live longer with pain and other chronic conditions. Women are more likely to have chronic pain, received a prescription for pain relievers, gradually be given higher doses, and then use them for longer time periods than men. Women may also become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than men, according to ASPM. Painkiller use in older adults pose other unique problems too, as Alan Cassels details in this new tip sheet.

Reporters interested in covering opiod prescribing and addiction in older adults will find a slew of useful information, statistics, resources, background on what’s driving this epidemic – and some ideas on why addiction among the elderly poses special health concerns.

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