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Pharmaceutical Drugs: The Hidden Killer of American Seniors

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The elderly struggle with much in the form of day-to-day problems and challenges that the rest of us do not have to face. As people age, their bodies seem to deteriorate slowly. Sometimes, especially much later in life, their minds and cognitive abilities will also begin to falter. These are all natural parts of the aging process and shouldn’t be contested or vilified. However, our methods of coping with aging can be found in fault. There are lots of different ways to address aging in all its various challenges and complications. However, we are very much so in the fault when we overmedicate seniors with highly addictive prescription drugs, and sadly that is exactly what we have been doing.

Growing older comes with challenges that require effective solutions. Health, lifestyle, family obligations, work roles, support networks, companionships, romance, all of it changes as one ages, and not necessarily for the better. There are certainly ways in which seniors can address these life changes, and some are positive and healthy, some are not. Unfortunately, we live in an extremely overmedicated society (we have only five percent of the world’s population yet we consume eighty percent of the world’s prescription drug supply). In the U.S., prescription drugs are used as the solution for everything, even if they shouldn’t be.

The Reality of the Situation

Experts believe that the main reason why it is not more broadly publicized that there is an epidemic of overmedication and prescription drug addiction amongst the elderly is that of misdiagnosis and an unwillingness to really look. People sort of palm off senior citizen addiction with various trumped-up explanations like, “The elderly already have a lot of problems. It’s probably not actually an addiction per se, probably just another senior problem. They just need to get their meds right is all.” For some reason, people are more likely to look the other way when a senior citizen has an addiction to their meds than when a young person is abusing meds.

But the statistics on this don’t lie, and we can’t look the other way forever. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence:

  • There are 7.5 million older adults who have an alcohol problem or a drug problem, with the vast majority of them being addicted to either pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two.
  • Widowers who are over the age of seventy-five have the highest rate of alcoholism and pill-popping tendencies in the entire U.S.
  • More than half of all seniors in nursing homes are overmedicated and on addictive pill drugs.
  • Almost seventeen-million prescriptions for different types of tranquilizer drugs are prescribed for senior adults every year. Benzodiazepine tranquilizers are extremely addictive and are commonly prescribed to older people. There are only forty-million seniors in this country, meaning that almost half of all seniors are put on these addictive drugs.
  • In the year 2013, 8.5 million prescriptions were written for opioids for seniors. That year, opioid pain reliever prescriptions for seniors went up by twenty percent. Though it is hard to give an exact number now, it is estimated that roughly five-million seniors are addicted to opiate pain reliever drugs or about fifteen percent of the total population of seniors.

Changing the Way We Approach Aging

Something has to change. Of that much we can easily be certain. Our whole approach to pain and pain management in this country is flawed, and it affects seniors in a similar if slightly more severe way than it affects the rest of us.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the rate of Americans of the age of fifty-five or older who had to receive medical care for a prescription drug overdose rose by more than forty-five percent from 2007 to 2011. Furthermore, the numbers of Americans fifty-five or older who died from a drug overdose tripled between 1999 and 2010.

There are other ways to address mild to severe pain and other health circumstances that the elderly may have that do not involve prescription drugging. Most European and Asiatic countries do not experience even a fraction of the pharmaceutical problems that our elderly faces. These countries expand upon holistic and non-pharmaceutical approaches to medicine, and we should too. It’s time we help our elders to give them a better quality of life. We need to stand up for them and change how we treat them as they once stood up for us in so many ways when we were young.

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