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Atwater: Prescription drug abuse differs by age group

Published: Thursday, July 3, 2014 2:25 p.m. CDT

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What might the lady behind you in line at the grocery store, the man sitting next to you on the train on the way to work and the nurse at your doctor’s office have in common? They all might have prescription drug addictions.

It isn’t a problem that is confined to high school kids or skateboard punks or any stereotypical notion you might have. It is increasingly prevalent in all age groups, from the 12-year-olds raiding mom’s medicine cabinet to the seniors with multiple doctors and multiple prescriptions.

As it turns out, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) the type of drug and the entry into its use varies widely by age. The youngest abusers trend toward prescription stimulants used for ADHD, particularly younger females. The 18-to-25 crowd is more likely to use opiate pain relievers, as are the mid-lifers, although anti-anxiety agents run a close second. The over-65 group has a wider range of drugs used, but the reasons are different. Older prescription drug users often have more legitimate health problems that lead to multiple prescriptions. The multiple scripts can cause confusion, and limited budgets can create situations where sharing the remainders of other’s prescriptions is common.

Younger people’s entry into the abuse of prescription drugs is often more of a recreational nature. They are strictly taking the drug to get high and may not even know what its medical use is. Some high school and college-age people misuse stimulants for study-enhancement purposes (academic doping), and some find a way to get an ADHD diagnosis specifically to get the stimulants to sell.

Adults are more likely to start for a legitimate medical reason and end up continuing the use for non-medical reasons. Adults who abuse other substances, such as alcohol or illicit drugs, are more likely to abuse prescription drugs as part of their effort to sustain the use of the original drug of abuse. They may use stimulants to recover from hangovers and anti-anxiety or sleep aids to “come down softly” so energy remains for the next binge.

For the over-65 group, more drugs means more risk of drug interactions and drugs being used in non-prescribed ways to counteract the side-effects of drugs being used legitimately. For someone unaware of the addictive nature of otherwise useful medications, the risk of habituation is fairly high. Many older adults operate under the false belief that if it is prescribed by a doctor, even if they don’t take it the way it was prescribed, it is safe.

Overall, the nonmedical use of prescription drugs has increased dramatically in the past decade. NIDA notes the frequency of nonmedical use of prescription drugs by self-report in recent surveys is second only to marijuana.

Nationally, more drug overdose deaths involved prescription drugs than heroin, cocaine, amphetamine and methamphetamine combined. According to NIDA, the U.S. makes up about 5 percent of the world population, and we ingest 75 percent of the world’s prescription drugs.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He can reached by email at rickatwater@northwestcommunitycounseling.com.

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