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Older Americans Support Limits on Opioid Prescriptions

University of Michigan/AARP poll finds doctors aren’t explaining the addiction risks of painkillers

Woman taking medication in bathroom.

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En español | An overwhelming majority of Americans 50 and older support limiting the number of opioid pills patients are prescribed at one time, according to a new University of Michigan/AARP survey. Fewer than half of those responding to the poll reported discussing the risks of painkiller addiction with their doctors, and even fewer received counseling from their pharmacists.

More than 1 in 4 older adults (29 percent) said they filled a prescription for an opioid medication in the past two years, most for arthritis-related pain, back pain or recovery from an injury or surgery. The survey was part of the National Poll on Healthy Aging, sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center. 

“While we don't know why these discussions aren't taking place, the poll results should provide encouragement for physicians and pharmacists to routinely discuss these and other safety issues with every patient who gets a prescription for opioids," says Preeti Malani, poll director and a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.

Even though the results pointed to the need for more consultation between doctors and their patients about the risks and side effects of opioids, the findings also show that older Americans are aware of the concerns surrounding these drugs. Three in 4 of those surveyed (73 percent) reported trying to take pain medication less often or in a smaller amount than was prescribed.

The survey also highlights an important safety issue associated with opioids: what to do with leftover medications. Nearly half (49 percent) of those who said they had taken pain medication in the past two years said they have leftover pills. More than 8 in 10 (86 percent) of those with leftover pills said they kept the medicine in case they had pain again. Only 13 percent returned the extra pills to an approved disposal location, such as a police station or pharmacy, or to a “take-back” event.  

“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,” says Alison Bryant, senior vice president of research at AARP. “Having unused opioids in the house, often stored in unlocked medicine cabinets, is a big risk to other family members as well. These findings highlight the importance of improving older adults’ awareness and access to services that will help them safely dispose of unused opioid medications.” The survey revealed that only 37 percent of older adults said their provider talked to them about what to do with leftover pills.

While there are products that can be bought at a pharmacy that can be added to opioid pills to make them safely disposable in the trash, if someone does want to take them to an approved disposal location, only 39 percent of respondents said they would definitely use such a product, with the majority of the rest saying they’d save the medicine for future use.

The poll results are based on online responses from 2,013 people ages 50 to 80. The survey has a margin of error of 1 to 2 percentage points.

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Older people are more likely to be prescribed opioids than any other population.

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