The Middle-Aged At Increased Risk of Painkiller Overdose
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013 and 2014, persons aged 45-64 accounted for 50% of deaths via painkiller overdose.
If the artist Prince did indeed die of an overdose in his home last month (as has been speculated) at age 57 he would be a prime example.
Why the middle aged? It’s just a matter of numbers. People in this age group are most likely to be prescribed narcotic painkillers (opioids) and/or benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety medication such as Xanax). Benzos, as they are often called, are not usually fatal on their own, even in high doses.
When mixed with painkillers, however, the combination may result in life-threatening central nervous system depression.
Other wild cards include adding alcohol or sleeping medications into the mix – two other common substances that people use in middle age.
As we get older, pain tends to increase for a variety of reasons. Our bodies have, by now, been exposed to repeated trauma, such as injury and disease. As this pain becomes problematic, people seek out relief. And often, these people do not even have a history of addiction.
However, over time, almost any substance use can result in tolerance. This means increasing amounts of the drug are required to achieve the same effect – another risk factor for a painkiller overdose.
The patient may then begin to self-medicate, so to speak, by increasing dosages. How can they do this? Well, doctor shopping is one way. Although prescription drug monitoring systems are in place all across the country, in many states they are still not mandatory. Another way is to get more medication from friends, relatives, and even dealers.
For those who go through an appropriate channel, the risk is still there. Sometimes physicians switch medications for their patients when the old ones no longer work as well as they once did. During this transition, there is also a heightened risk of overdose, especially if the new medication was stronger than the previous one used.
There’s also lifestyle differences. Divorce is common among this age group, and children have often moved out on their own. Thus, it’s easier to abuse medication, and if an overdose occurs, there may not be anyone around to help.
They are also more likely to have other chronic health problems that may put them at risk for breathing difficulties. These include respiratory problems such are COPD, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. While these conditions are most prevalent in older adults, but the age of onset can be as early as 40.
Physicians are aware of these risks, but sometimes simply fail to recognize when there is a problem. If the patient appears to be doing well, some may chose look the other way, rather than actively assist the patient in decreasing his or her risk of addiction or painkiller overdose.
~ G Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology
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