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Three Unlikely Groups Hit Hard by the Prescription Drug Epidemic

Three Unlikely Groups Hit Hard by the Prescription Drug EpidemicThe face of drug addiction has changed dramatically in the past decade. Gone are the days when the “typical” drug addict was a junkie shooting heroin on the street. The widespread abuse of prescription drugs, which are easily accessible and presumed “safe,” has meant that addiction is plaguing some unexpected populations. Three unsuspecting groups have been hit particularly hard:

#1 Seniors

A new generation of addicts is making its way into drug rehab centers. Many Baby Boomers, who grew up in the 60s and 70s in a culture that romanticized drug abuse as consciousness-raising, are now retiring. Free from the responsibilities of work and raising children, some are using their extra time and money to return to the drugs of their youth or to experiment with newer drugs, including prescription medications.

Roughly three million American seniors suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. That number is estimated to triple by 2020 as Baby Boomers continue to age. The Baby Boomers are at high risk of prescription drug addiction. Nearly three in 10 people between the ages of 57 and 85 use at least five prescription medications, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Drugs affect seniors differently than younger adults, making them particularly vulnerable to addiction:

  • As a result of changing body chemistry, tolerance weakens with age.
  • Seniors frequently combine alcohol with prescription drugs, a potentially lethal pair.
  • Elderly patients are more likely to take multiple medications prescribed by more than one doctor, increasing the risk of drug interactions and doctor shopping.
  • Fixed incomes and cognitive decline increase the risk of improper use of medications.
  • A new set of stressors arises in the golden years, such as declining health, economic troubles and grief over the death of loved ones. The physical and emotional burden may increase the risk of depression, anxiety, insomnia and other ailments, which in turn increases the risk of substance abuse.

Although they experience more negative consequences, drug problems often go unrecognized or ignored among the elderly. Doctors, family and friends commonly mistake an addiction for other problems, such as Alzheimer’s, dementia or depression. Once retired, there are fewer bosses or co-workers around to recognize a problem, and adult children often live out of town or turn a blind eye to the warning signs. Seniors themselves may be reluctant to ask for help because of shame and stigma.

#2 Stressed Out Moms

From the day their child is born and continuing through adolescence and beyond, some moms find that worry and stress plague every waking – and sleeping – moment. Exhausted but unable to wind down after dashing through an endless to-do list, moms are in dire need of help to get through the day – help that at one time may have come from family and community support, but now comes in a convenient little pill.

In the 60s, the Rolling Stones were onto a trend that would continue for decades with their song “Mother’s Little Helper.” Originally a reference to a “little yellow pill,” the anti-anxiety drug Valium, as housewives’ drug of choice, in the past decade drug use among stressed out moms has expanded to include other prescription drugs. Now, “mother’s little helper” may be a sleep aid like Ambien, an opiate painkiller like Vicodin or OxyContin, a sedative like Xanax, or a stimulant like Adderall (or a combination of these).

More than 18 million women ages 26 and older reported using prescription medications for unintended uses in 2008, almost a million more than in 2007. Many start out with legitimate prescriptions for a medical condition or injury and become dependent without realizing it. Since mothers tend to be highly involved in their children’s lives, drug abuse can have a significant impact on the family. Studies show that children of addicts are more likely to be neglected, abused or placed in foster care. They are also at high risk of addiction later in life.

Women also are more likely to hide their addictions than men. Although there is generally less stigma attached to prescription drug abuse than illicit drug use, moms who abuse drugs have always been subjected to a particularly heavy stigma. It’s just not “what moms do.” Because they worry about the people who depend on them, moms are less likely to seek treatment than men.

#3 Children

In the past 10 years, the number of teens abusing prescription medications has surpassed the number abusing cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine combined (2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health). The latest Partnership Attitude Tracking Study shows that the rate of prescription drug abuse by teens is holding steady at a hefty 17 percent.

Younger children are also succumbing to prescription drug abuse. Nearly 8 percent of children ages 12 to 17 reported abusing prescription drugs in 2010, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The number of children who have died from poisoning has also increased more than 80 percent, largely due to prescription drug abuse, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Amphetamines are the most commonly abused, next to tranquilizers, barbiturates and narcotics.

Among children and teens, whose brains and bodies are still developing, the long-term effects of prescription drug abuse are particularly worrisome. In addition to being highly addictive, side effects can include anxiety, depression, seizures, depressed breathing, irregular heartbeat and dangerously high body temperature.

No group is immune to prescription drug abuse. While addictions to many illicit drugs are declining, prescription drug addiction is skyrocketing among people of all ages, genders and races, as are the numbers of fatal overdoses and admissions to drug rehab centers. The good news is that once they do get help, addicted seniors, moms and children are often highly successful in treatment programs.

Three Unlikely Groups Hit Hard by the Prescription Drug Epidemic

David Sack, M.D.

Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees a nationwide network of treatment centers including drug and alcohol rehab programs at The Ranch in Tennessee and The Right Step in Texas.

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APA Reference
Sack, D. (2017). Three Unlikely Groups Hit Hard by the Prescription Drug Epidemic. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 9, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Jun 2017
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