Older Americans Rarely Abuse Opioid Medication

By Pat Anson, Editor

Three out of four older Americans who are prescribed opioid pain medication say they take it less often or in lower amounts than prescribed, according to a new national poll. Only 6 percent said they took opioids more frequently or in higher doses than prescribed.

The online survey of over 2,000 adults between the ages of 50 and 80 was conducted in March by the University of Michigan's Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.  The poll was sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M's academic medical center.

Nearly a third of those surveyed said they received an opioid prescription in the past two years, usually for arthritis, back pain, surgery or injury. About half of those had leftover medication.

While most were cautious about their use of opioids, what they did with the leftover meds was cause for concern. The vast majority (86%) said they kept it in case they had pain again. Only 9% threw their opioids in the trash or flushed it down the toilet, and 13% returned it to an approved location.

"The fact that so many older adults report having leftover opioid pills is a big problem, given the risk of abuse and addiction with these medications," said Alison Bryant, PhD, senior vice president of research for AARP. "Having unused opioids in the house, often stored in unlocked medicine cabinets, is a big risk to other family members as well.”

The researchers suspect that many older adults fear that they will not be able to obtain pain medication when needed because of laws and guidelines that discourage opioid prescribing. Several states now mandate that initial opioid prescriptions for acute pain be limited to a few days’ supply.

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Ironically, while many older Americans may worry about losing access to opioid medication, nearly three out of four (74%) support restrictions on the number of days and pills that can be prescribed. And nearly half would support laws that require leftover medication to be returned.

The poll also found that doctors do not consistently warn patients about the risks associated with opioids. While 90% of those surveyed said their prescribing doctor talked with them about how often to take pain medication, only 60% were warned about side effects and less than half of the doctors cautioned patients about the risks of addiction and overdose or what to do with leftover pills.

A full report on the National Poll on Healthy Aging can be found by clicking here.