Caring Currents

Prescription Addiction Part 2: (Grand)Mother's Little Helpers

Last updated: Jul 24, 2008


If you're caring for seniors, they're likely to be taking a variety of prescription medications.  Are there some medications that carry more risk for abuse and addiction than others?

All medications -- prescription and over-the-counter -- can be misused, but three particular classes of drugs have the highest potential for abuse, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). These include: Opiods, Central Nervous System depressants, and Stimulants.

Opiods are prescribed for pain relief, and include morphine and codeine, as well as drugs like Oxycontin, Darvon, and Vicodin.

Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants are used in the treatment of anxiety and sleep disorders, and include tranquilizers and sedatives. Two common CNS depressants are Valium and Xanex.

Stimulants boost energy and focus and include the drugs Ritalin and Dexedrine, among others. In the past, stimulants were often used to treat obesity and asthma, but because they were found to be extremely addictive, their use is now principally restricted to treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and narcolepsy.

If your parents are on any of these medications, chances are they're taking a CNS depressant. Over half of all the drugs prescribed for the elderly include some form of sedative, according to experts at the renowned Hazelden addiction treatment center in Minnesota. Physicians write 16.9 million prescriptions for tranquilizers for their elderly patients each year, according to Hazelden -- second only to heart medications. Elderly patients may also be given an opiod if they have surgery or suffer from a painful condition.

When used responsibly, prescription medications can measurably improve lives. But these drugs also carry the risk of dependance and addiction -- and seniors are particularly vulnerable. The changing metabolisms of older people can intensify the  effects of drugs and alcohol for one thing. And aging in America is often characterized by loss and loneliness -- two conditions that increase the risk of substance abuse.

Stay tuned for more on this subject – including information on how to identify a prescription drug problem and what to do about it -- in next week’s post.


Image by Flickr user Divine Harvester, used under the Creative Commons licensing agreement.