Seniors and Overdose: 1 in 6 Takes Dangerous Combinations of Meds

Senior Americans are increasingly becoming a group hard hit by drug abuse, addiction, and overdose. Though some have had lifelong issues with substance use and abuse, and carry these issues into their retirement years, many do not develop these problems until later in life. Some seniors seek to self-medicate issues of depression, boredom, or anxiety by drinking heavily or using other substances, but others develop a substance use issue with the use of legitimate prescription medications, often in combination with other substances.

Is combination drug use putting your loved one at risk?

Supplement Risk

A recent study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found that use of supplements are also creating dangerous reactions when taken in combination with prescription drugs. As of 2011, more than 15 percent of senior Americans took dietary supplements in combination with over-the-counter and prescription drugs that were potentially life threatening – up twofold from 8.4 percent in 2005.

Dr. Dima Qato is an assistant professor of pharmacy systems at the University of Illinois at Chicago and lead researcher on the study. Says Dr. Qato: “Alongside the growing use of multiple medications, there is also a hidden, and increasing, risk of potentially deadly drug interactions in older adults. A medication or supplement may be safe and beneficial when you use it alone, but when you mix it with other medications or supplements, it can be very dangerous.”

Sometimes, the supplements alter how the prescription drugs work and decrease their efficacy, leaving the person open to a continuation of the harmful symptoms that the drug was prescribed to treat. Unfortunately, many older Americans do not share the details of what they are taking with their doctor and thus cannot receive the guidance they need to avoid or address any issues they may face.

Prescription Drug Mix

It is not uncommon for older Americans to see a range of different doctors and specialists, each of whom may provide prescriptions to address the symptoms the person is experiencing. More and more often, patients are looking to the world of alternative medicine to manage ailments and using these alternative medicines in concert with Western medicine. Also, many patients will see a range of specialists and try different medications and therapies in an effort to address different issues. The result can be a mix of prescription medications that are a deadly combination.


Another common misperception among older people is that they will continue to process alcohol just as they always have. This is not the case, especially when taking prescription medications. Though many drugs have a warning label advising abstinence from alcohol, many seniors disregard this as a suggestion rather than an indication of real risk and continue to have their glass or two of wine with dinner or a couple of beers during the day. Unfortunately, even a small amount of alcohol can cause commonly prescribed benzodiazepines and painkillers to be amplified in effect. That is, what would ordinarily be a stable dose of these medications becomes overwhelming to the system when alcohol is introduced, and seniors may be more prone to falls, impaired driving, and medical emergencies as a result.

What Is Normal?

It is not always easy to tell what is normal and what isn’t when it comes to identifying indications of a substance use or abuse issue among seniors. Many people ignore the signs, believing that the increased naps, isolation, slurred speech, and lack of coordination are signs of a change of medication or a normal part of getting older – and they very well may be. However, when these issues continue long past the first few days of adjustment, it can indicate a problem. Additionally, if there are signs of alcohol abuse, use of other illicit substances like marijuana, or signs of abuse of the medications, then it’s time to take action.

Abuse of Medications

If a person is prescribed a medication, what constitutes “abuse” of that drug? It is not always easy to see, but there are some clear signs that a person is not using medications correctly and therefore at risk:

  • Taking a higher dosage or taking more frequent doses than prescribed
  • Crushing pills before swallowing them
  • Snorting or injecting a crushed pill
  • Claiming to have lost medications with the intent of getting more pills
  • Going to multiple doctors and purposefully not sharing that they have a similar narcotic or sedative prescription already in place
  • Attempting to alter a written prescription or fill the same prescription at different pharmacies

Talking about Treatment

It is never easy to broach the topic of addiction or treatment with a loved one of any age, but it can be particularly difficult to discuss with a parent or older relative who may not take your opinion seriously and/or be offended by the suggestion that addiction treatment is necessary. Though the dangerous mix of supplements with prescription drugs can be easily remedied if the person is not abusing the prescription medications and ready to make safer choices, all other issues – using drugs to self-medicate difficult emotions, drinking while taking certain drugs, or abusing medications – require treatment.

There are a number of different types and styles of treatment that may be appropriate for your loved one. Contact us today to learn more about what treatment options will best serve your family, and begin the healing process now.

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