News about the opioid crisis or opioid epidemic has put many patients on notice about the dangers of these drugs. But what about nursing home patients in Rancho Bernardo and elsewhere in Southern California who may be suffering harms from opioids, benzodiazepines, and other prescription medications? Should physicians be prescribing such medications for seniors in skilled nursing facilities, or could these drugs be doing more harm than good? Is it possible that the use—and overuse—of benzodiazepines and opioids together in nursing homes could rise to the level of nursing home abuse or nursing home neglect?
According to a recent article in The New York Times, use of benzodiazepines is on the rise among America’s seniors, yet older adults are “particularly vulnerable to the drugs’ ill effects.” In combination with opioid prescriptions, elderly adults using benzodiazepines may be at particularly severe risk of harm.
History of Benzodiazepine Dangers in Older Adults
Benzodiazepines are recommended for use “only for short periods.” However, seniors in California and throughout the country tend to use them for much longer periods of time—some for years. For quite awhile, physicians and senior health researchers have emphasized the potential dangers of benzodiazepine use among the elderly. It is difficult to stop taking these drugs once a person starts, and when someone uses benzodiazepines in addition to opioids, there is a significantly increased risk of overdose. Benzodiazepines, or “benzos” for short, include drugs such as Valium, Klonopin, Xanax, and Ativan. Other drugs known as “z-drugs,” including Ambien, Sonata, and Lunesta, can come with similar risks.
Given recent attention to the opioid crisis, one might think that prescriptions for opioids have declined among nursing home residents. Yet according to the article, the opposite seems to be true. As we mentioned, more seniors are taking benzos, and more are also being prescribed opioids.
Risks of Mixing Benzos and Opioids for Seniors in Nursing Homes
More nursing home patients and other seniors are being prescribed opioids, which include pain relievers like Vicodin and OxyContin. When opioids are combined with benzodiazepines, patients—and especially older adults—are at serious risk of a deadly drug overdose. According to Keith Humphreys, a researcher at Stanford University who recently addressed benzodiazepine dangers in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, opioids are so dangerous for seniors because “they stop you from breathing, and they have more power to do that when you’re also taking a benzo.” This is true even if patients are taking their medications exactly as they have been prescribed.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that there were 63 deaths among the elderly related to benzodiazepines in 1999. That number has increased significantly over the last twenty years. By 2015, seniors deaths connected to benzos rose to 431, and nearly 30% of those deaths also involved a patient who was taking an opioid.
Contact a Rancho Bernardo Nursing Home Negligence Lawyer
Do physicians at nursing homes have a duty to prevent these types of avoidable deaths? An experienced Rancho Bernardo nursing home neglect attorney can speak with you today about your case. Contact the Walton Law Firm to talk with a dedicated elder justice advocate.
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(image courtesy of Andres de Armas)