More than 300,000 older Americans are dependent on powerful painkillers and other medications, and that number has nearly tripled in the past decade.
"What you see a lot of the time is they're using them to treat chronic pain, to treat depression," said Peter Eisler, USA Today's reporter who investigated this issue.
The drugs used are narcotic painkillers, including such opiates as Percocet and Vicodin, and anti-anxiety medicines like Xanax and Valium. Among people aged 65 years old and older who use Xanax and Valium, which are benzodiazepines, there was a 12 percent increase in prescriptions over the past five years to 28.4 million prescriptions.
There can be complications when the elderly use these medications.
"So these drugs can increase your risk of falls, for example," Eisler said. "When given in combination in certain doses, they can cause problems with depressing your respiratory function. So what you see is this rise in emergency room visits. We're up to about 100,000 visits a year now among older people for misuse of prescription drugs."
Eisler said it's an overprescribing problem that builds over time.
"It's driven to some extent by ignorance," he said. "Someone will come in. They'll have chronic pain from arthritis. They'll have a little bit of depression maybe related to aging, and they'll be put on these drugs, and then they never get taken off. As time goes by, they develop a tolerance; they ask for a little bit more. So patients are requesting them and doctors are giving it to them."