Seniors Are Drowning In A Flood Of Prescription Pills

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter

Doctors are doling out multiple prescription pills to patients over 65 years old at a record pace, sparking fears seniors are being exposed to addiction and potentially fatal combinations.

Visits to the doctor involving seniors receiving three or more prescriptions more than doubled since 2004, tripling in more rural regions in the U.S. Medical professionals are concerned with the consequences of “polypharmacy,” where patients are prescribed combinations of pills including tranquilizers, opioid pain killers and antidepressants. Researchers of a new study are warning such powerful drugs may be damaging to the long-term heath of seniors’ central nervous systems, reports PsyPost.

More than three million annual doctor visits are for seniors taking three or more prescription drugs.

“The rise we saw in these data may reflect the increased willingness of seniors to seek help and accept medication for mental health conditions – but it’s also concerning because of the risks of combining these medications,” Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist and lead author of the study, told PsyPost. “We hope that the newer prescribing guidelines for older adults encourage providers and patients to reconsider the potential risks and benefits from these combinations.”

Combining prescription opioids with benzodiazepines is of particular concern to researchers, and led to a strong warning from the Food and Drug Administration in September. The FDA said doctors should limit prescribing the two together, and warned the combination can result in death. Benzodiazepines are central nervous system depressants such as Xanax, often prescribed for panic attacks and general anxiety disorders.

Roughly 10 percent of doctor visits for seniors involved opioid prescriptions in 2010. Roughly 5.6 percent of doctor visits for seniors resulted in a prescription for a benzodiazepine, despite just 16 percent of those patients having a diagnosed mental health condition.

“Prescribing of benzodiazepines to older adults continues despite decades of evidence showing safety concerns, effective alternative treatments, and effective methods for tapering even chronic users,” Maust told PsyPost.

Officials in some states are moving to place greater limits on the number of opioids doctors are allowed to prescribe in order to limit risks to seniors and stem the general opioid epidemic. Some state officials are also advocating for a stricter system for tracking patients and their prescriptions, in an effort to limit doctor shopping.

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