Loneliness is driving more older adults to use opioids, prescription drugs

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. — Loneliness has become major mental health talking point during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s particularly prevalent among older adults; something that generally went without discussion before quarantines allowed much of society to see how painful living alone can be for some. Now, a new study is revealing how dangerous feeling lonely can be for seniors, especially when it comes to taking medications. Researchers from the University of California-San Francisco say older adults who consider themselves very lonely are much more likely to be using prescription painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs, and powerful opioids than more active seniors.

Study authors surveyed 6,000 seniors across the United States and discovered that only half say they’re not lonely. Meanwhile, 40 percent say they’re moderately lonely and seven percent consider themselves very lonely.

Unfortunately, the study discovered a link between levels of loneliness and use of prescription drugs, such as Valium, Xanax, BuSpar, and Ambien. The more someone feels isolated and alone, the higher the likelihood that they’re not just taking these medications, but also taking several different varieties at the same time.

“There’s a misconception that as we age, we become more withdrawn and less sociable,” says first author Ashwin Kotwal, MD, from the UCSF Division of Geriatrics and the San Francisco VA Medical Center, in a university release. “In fact, older people are more socially active than other age groups and frequently play major roles in their communities. When older people are not socially active, we need to recognize that there’s a problem.”

Lonely seniors turning to dementia-causing drugs?

Researchers examined data from the National Social Life, Health and Aging Project, which looked at each person’s use of medications. The group, which had an average age of 73, revealed details about their prescription drug regimen, using phrases such as they take these medications “on a regular schedule, like every day or every week.”

While only six percent of non-lonely seniors reported using prescription opioids, eight percent of moderately lonely senior say they do and 11 percent of very lonely seniors say they same. When it comes to anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives, 23 percent of the very lonely group admit to using these drugs. Just 13 percent of the moderately lonely and nine percent of the non-lonely groups do the same.

Concerningly, the anti-anxiety medications and sedatives category also contains anti-cholinergic drugs like Valium, Unisom, and tricyclic antidepressants. Study authors note these kinds of medications have a link to higher risks for developing dementia.

Moreover, highly lonely older adults are significantly more likely to use five or more medications at once in comparison to non-lonely Americans. Specifically, 58 percent of seniors experiencing loneliness use several prescription drugs compared to 46 percent of their non-lonely peers.

A prescription for social engagement

Kotwal says, in an attempt to cut back on psychotropic drug use, doctors need to look at “social prescribing” for older adults. The researcher adds that having “link workers” in primary care practices can help with this process, setting patients up with senior centers, exercise classes, grief groups, or volunteer programs.

“We don’t want to pathologize loneliness. Most people experience loneliness at some point in their lives, but when experiences of loneliness persist for many months or years, it can cause physiologic changes, such as a ramped-up stress response, sleep problems, and even heart disease,” Kotwal explains. “And, a lack of social contact can erode our social skills, making it more difficult over time to connect with others and creating a vicious cycle.”

Researchers say, however, that it will take time to “de-prescribe” the public, even though most physicians know there are dangers of using these drugs long-term. Switching off of medications which work quickly to activities which take longer to see results can be challenging, especially when people feel in distress.

The study appears in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.

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