Lonely seniors pumped full of dangerous medications

David Heitz

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A study published Monday in Journal of the American Medical Association shows that many seniors who experience loneliness are prescribed a host of dangerous medications, from opioids (highly addictive painkillers such as Percocet) to benzodiazepines (habit-forming anti-anxiety medications like Xanax or Ativan).

“Loneliness, the emotional distress resulting from a discrepancy between one’s actual and desired level of social connection, is associated with physical and psychological symptoms in older adults, including pain, insomnia, depression, and anxiety,” according to the study. “The relationship of loneliness to these symptoms is likely bidirectional; in some situations, it acts as a risk factor for the symptoms and in others it is the consequence of symptoms. In either case, lonely older adults may be at risk for using high-risk medications commonly prescribed for physical or psychological symptoms.

“Our objective was therefore to investigate the relationship between loneliness and high-risk medication use. A better understanding of this relationship might inform strategies for addressing symptoms and deprescribing potentially risky medications through the use of nonpharmacologic, social interventions.”

National Social Life, Health and Aging Project

More than 6,000 elderly Americans completed surveys for the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project from 2005-2015. The authors found that many patients were receiving unnecessary prescriptions of dangerous medications.

“In this nationally representative cohort of older adults, loneliness was a powerful predictor of use of medications used to treat physical and psychological symptoms,” according to the study. “Loneliness was associated with higher pain medication use, including use of opioids and NSAIDs, and more than twice the frequency of use of antidepressants, sleep medications, and benzodiazepines. These medications are associated with adverse consequences among older adults, including opioid dependence, gastrointestinal bleeds, falls, fractures, delirium or cognitive impairment, new functional disability, and death.

“In circumstances in which loneliness is a risk factor for the development of physical or psychological symptoms, medications may not treat the underlying social experience of loneliness.”

The authors, Dr. Ashwin Kotwal, Dr. Michael Steinman, and Irena Cenzer practice at San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical and University of California at San Francisco.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

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