LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The opioid epidemic has exploded across headlines, but the one group that's often overlooked is seniors.
An analysis of a recent study showed more than 500,000 Medicare recipients received high doses of opioids in 2016 and the average dose exceeded the manufacturer's recommended amount.
It's a problem that's been under the radar among older Americans, but is rapidly coming into focus as awareness increases.
John Evard Jr. is 71 years old. The retired corporate tax attorney enjoys spending time playing golf, but it wasn't long ago that his life was vastly different.
"I couldn't have a social life anymore," Evard Jr. said. "I couldn't play golf with my friends. I couldn't go to restaurants."
Evard Jr. said he'd been given opioids following a surgical procedure. It didn't take long before he became dependent on Oxycodone.
"I needed some increased amount as the pain got worse and worse," Evard Jr. said. "I think our bodies become very dependent and tolerant to these medications quite quickly."
UCLA pain specialist Dr. Irene Wu said opioids are good painkillers and can be safely used for acute pain in many cases.
While some people can become dependent or addicted after short-term use, she said the biggest issue is when opioids are used for chronic pain, especially with seniors.
"I think older patients are more prone to side effects because they metabolize medications much more slowly," Wu said.
That slower metabolism can put seniors at higher risk for respiratory distress and cognitive impairment, according to Wu.
A government survey found "hospital stays involving opioid overuse" grew five-fold between 1993-2012 for people over age 45, much more than any other age group.
Evard Jr. said he followed his prescription instructions and was on the opioids for about eight months. By then, basically housebound, he knew he was in trouble and checked into rehab.
"I had no other solution," Evard Jr. said. "My life was ending. I mean, I didn't have any real reason to live, except just living for the more medications."
Now, Evard Jr. is doing well and manages his pain with non-opioid medications. He said he gets the most relief from aerobic exercise.
Wu added that there are several options to manage pain that don't use opioids.
"For older patients, I think that we should introduce them to what we call multimodal pain management, meaning the use of muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatories, which all have much less side effects than the typical opioids may have," Wu said.
Wu also recommends acupuncture and physical therapy. They can be used as alternatives or as additives for people who may also be taking opioid medications.
Opioid dependence becoming growing problem among seniors
CIRCLE OF HEALTH