Against the backdrop of an unrelenting opioid crisis, two new government reports warn that America's seniors are succumbing to the pitfalls of prescription painkillers.

Opioid Complications

Issued by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the reports reveal that millions of older Americans are now filling prescriptions for many different opioid medications at the same time, while hundreds of thousands are winding up in the hospital with opioid-related complications.

These reports underscore the growing and under-recognized concerns with opioid use disorder in older populations, including those who suffer from chronic pain and are at risk for adverse events from opioids.

Bierman was part of a team that focused on trends regarding opioid-related hospitalizations and emergency department visits among U.S. seniors.  Bierman and her colleagues pointed out that chronic pain is common among seniors, as eight in 10 struggle with multiple health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and depression.

Risk Of Side Effects

To cope, many seniors take opioids, which inevitably raises the risk of side effects and negative drug interactions. And in fact, the team found, opioid-driven complications were the cause for nearly 125,000 hospitalizations and more than 36,000 emergency department visits among seniors in 2015.

The report also uncovered other alarming trends. Between 2010 and 2015, there was a 34% jump in the number of opioid-related inpatient hospital admissions among seniors, even as non-opioid-related inpatient hospitalizations dropped by 17%.

Emergency Department

Similarly, AHRQ investigators found that opioid-related emergency department visits among seniors shot up by 74%, while non-opioid related emergency department visits only increased 17%.

At the same time, AHRQ's second report found that nearly 20% of seniors filled at least one opioid prescription between 2015 and 2016, equal to about 10 million seniors. And more than 7% or about 4 million seniors filled prescriptions for four or more opioids, which was characterized as "frequent" use.

Frequent use was found to be notably more common among seniors who were either poor or low-income, insured through Medicare or another form of public insurance, and residents of rural areas.

Non-Opioid Pain Medications

The challenge said Bierman, "is safe-prescribing for those who need opioids for pain while avoiding overuse or misuse. By using non-opioid pain medications and non-pharmacologic treatments before considering the use of opioids." And she suggested that if and when opioids are needed, "the lowest possible dose should be used."

Shame, stigma and social isolation among older people may also complicate efforts to prevent addiction or tackle it when it occurs. SAMHSA supports early training for all health professionals so that addiction can be avoided, identified and treatment offered as early as possible.