Older adults aren’t immune from the dangers of prescription opioids or even street drugs.
While those between 25 and 34 accounted for the highest death rates in the region from drug overdoses in 2015, a small number of people 55 and over met the same demise. And even more people age 65 and older visited the emergency room that year for overdoses from prescription drugs, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
“The message here is that an opioid overdose can happen to anybody,” said Dr. Brooke Rossheim, director of the Rappahannock Area Health District. “This is a problem that affects every age group.”
Rossheim spoke about opioid use and misuse among older adults to the King George Triad on Tuesday. Sponsored by the King George Sheriff’s Office, the group alerts seniors and their caregivers to schemes targeted at them.
About 30 people attended the session, including Alvin Calhoun, who thought the meeting would focus on dope dealers and what they peddle.
“Instead, he was actually talking about opioid abuse among adults my age,” he said, adding how surprised he was to learn that people of all backgrounds could take pain medicine for legitimate problems—then end up being addicted.
Jesse East Jr. asked if the prescription painkillers Rossheim described—the Percocet or Vicodin, morphine or OxyContin—“can get you hooked if you use them once or twice.”
Generally no, Rossheim said, adding: “It’s not common that people get addicted to prescription drugs, but it is common enough that it’s a problem.”
He suggested those who’ve had surgery or need help with acute pain try another medication, such as Tylenol or Advil, first to see “if you can get by” with it. If medicines containing opioids, a natural or synthetic substance that works in the brain to provide pain relief, are needed, the doctor had this suggestion:
“Take them for the shortest amount of time possible, and then stop,” he said.
Rossheim gave a brief description of opioid addiction, a problem that has reached epidemic proportions across all age, social and economic groups in the country. The National Center for Injury Prevention and Control reports that street drugs and prescription opioids killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than any year on record.
In the Rappahannock district, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford, eight people died from overdoses of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, in 2012.
Three years later, there were 33 deaths.
In terms of the prevalence of overdose deaths in the Rappahannock district, the rates are highest among the 25 to 34 age group. Their rate of death from overdoses of street drugs such as heroin or fentanyl is 27.6 per 100,000 people.
But older adults also have died the same way. In 2015, the overdose death rate from street drugs for those ages 55 to 64 was 7.2 per 100,000 people.
Visits to the emergency room for overdoses of prescription opioids show the highest rates of any drugs used. In 2015 in the Rappahannock district, the rate of emergency room visits per 100,000 people for overdoses from prescription painkillers was:
- Ages 0-14: 21.7
- Ages 15-24: 229
- Ages 25-34: 186.8
- Ages 35-44: 132.3
- Ages 45-54: 73.1
- Ages 55-64: 110.5
- Ages 65+: 44
- All ages: 109.2
Older adults make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, but they account for one-third of the spending on prescription drugs. They’re likely to be prescribed more medicine and for longer periods of time, and if they don’t know what each drug is for—and its side effects—they can end up taking medicine they don’t need and for longer than needed.
“Neither of those things is particularly good,” Rossheim said.
Karen Richards, a detective with the King George Sheriff’s Office who leads the Triad team, said it can be difficult for people to address addiction problems they see in their parents or older relatives.
“It puts you in a really sensitive role when you’re trying to address these things with your elders, and a lot of time it goes unreported,” Richards said. “Please have the courage to address it with them or reach out to a support service.”