Opioid ‘epidemic’ can be overlooked among seniors

Apr 16th, 2019 | By | Category: News

County and municipal government leaders locally and across the nation are calling attention to the impact of opioids on the health of seniors.

A report in February by the National Association of County and City Health Officials stated that as the opioid epidemic continues, older victims of the crisis can be overlooked. They are at greater risk of complications from many drugs, and in the case of opioids, the results among elderly users can include confusion that might be mistaken for dementia, as well as injury or death-inducing falls.

Family members and caretakers should be alert to the risks and watch for adverse effects, according to the counties and cities group (NACCHO).

Locally, the opioid epidemic was highlighted on Feb. 22 at the Tacoma-Pierce County Opioid Summit. Held at Pacific Lutheran University, the event followed two years of study and work by the Tacoma-Pierce County Opioid Task Force on “strategies for opioid education, prevention and treatment programs,” said County Councilman Derek Young, who headed the task force along with City Councilman Conor McCarthy. “What we know is that information-sharing must happen among all invested to stop the epidemic.”

Summit speakers included U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett, and William Moyers, a vice president of Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, a national addiction treatment and advocacy organization.

In its report issued in February, NACCHO listed commonly prescribed drugs and described their negative effects on older people:

• Benzodiazepines. Anxiety or sleep medications are addictive and can cause life-threatening withdrawal, if stopped suddenly. Risks include potentially fatal falls. Can cause confusion and depression. Examples include alprazolam (Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan), clonazepam (Klonopin), diazepam (Valium).

• Narcotics/opioids. Examples include hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, fentanyl. Addictive pain relievers are addictive, can cause sedation, confusion that can resemble dementia/Alzheimer’s, prolonged or increased chronic pain, reduced sexual function, depression, decreased motivation, decreased appetite, and severe constipation.

• Anticholinergic edications. Prescription examples include hyocyamine, scopolamine, dicyclomine, glycopyrrolate, atropine, ipratropium, oxybutynin, and benztropine. Over-the-counter examples include diphenhydramine (Benadryl), Tylenol PM and Advil PM. As a side-effect, they remove a chemical in the brain (acetylcholine) that is necessary for memory and cognitive function. Can cause falls, confusion, dry mouth, constipation, glaucoma, and difficulty urinating, creating risk of urinary tract/bladder infections).

Pierce and King counties, along with the state of Washington and other state and local governments, have sued pharmaceutical companies that they accuse of misleading doctors and patients about the safety of prescription opioids. The counties claim hundreds of their residents have died from opioid-related overdoses.

Seniors are vulnerable to overdoses. According to a study by the Gerontological Society of America between 2006 and 2012, about 11 percent of overdoses among older adults in the U.S. involved opiates. The study reviewed 71,000 cases involving older adults who were mostly 65 to 74 years old.

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