Specific Populations and Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse

Prescription drug misuse and abuse affects people from various backgrounds, but some population groups are more vulnerable than others.

Men and Women

According to results from the 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) (PDF | 3.4 MB), the rate of current nonmedical use of prescription psychotherapeutic drugs was 2.6% in men and 2.3% in women. Data from a 2012 Drug Abuse Warning Network report showed that the proportion of emergency department visits involving nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals varied by gender: for youth aged 15 to 17, the difference between girls (45%) and boys (31%) was significant.

Youth and Young Adults

Many young people think that prescription drugs are safer than illegal drugs because they are prescribed by a physician, dispensed by a pharmacist, and manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. According to a 2013 Monitoring the Future study, prescription drugs are the second-most abused category of drugs, after marijuana.

NSDUH data tracks prescription drug misuse or abuse among youth:

  • In 2014, the rate of past year nonmedical pain reliever use among youth aged 12 to 17 was 6.2%. For young adults ages 18 to 25, the rate was 11.8%.
  • In 2014, youths aged 12 to 17, or young adults aged 18 to 25, were more likely to misuse prescription drugs in the past year than adults aged 26 or older.
  • The percentage of current misusers of prescription drugs significantly increased for those aged 12-17 from 2.2% in 2013 to 2.6% in 2014.
  • On an average day during the past year, an average of 5,784 adolescents used prescription pain relievers non-medically for the first time.

A 2013 SAMHSA study shows that emergency department visits for drug misuse or abuse by youth aged 12 to 17 on a typical day include:

  • 74 for prescription or nonprescription pain relievers
  • 32 for antidepressants or antipsychotics
  • 31 for benzodiazepines
  • 26 for narcotic pain relievers
  • 11 for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder medications

SAMHSA provides a guide called Talking to Your Kids – 2012, which encourages parents to speak to their kids about the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

Older Adults (Age 50 and Older)

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, as of 2014, prescription drug misuse or abuse is increasing among people in their fifties.

Older adults are likely to experience more problems with relatively small amounts of medications because of increased medication sensitivity, and slower metabolism and elimination. Older adults are at higher risk for medication misuse than the general population because of their elevated rates of pain, sleep disorders/insomnia, and anxiety. They also may experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper use of medications.

  • The combination of alcohol and medication misuse has been estimated to affect up to 19% of older Americans.
  • Approximately 25% of older adults use prescription psychoactive medications that have a potential to be misused and abused.
  • Older adults are more likely to take prescribed psychoactive medications for longer periods of time than younger adults.

SAMHSA’s 2008 manual, Substance Abuse Among Older Adults, offers guidelines for the identification, screening, assessment, and treatment of older people for alcohol abuse and abuse of prescription drugs or over-the-counter drugs. There is also a desk reference physician’s guide of this resource. Prescription Medication Misuse and Abuse Among Older Adults – 2012 (PDF | 348 KB) offers strategies for education, screening, and early interventions for prevention of prescription medication misuse and abuse.

Combining alcohol and medications can be a health risk for older adults. As people age, their bodies work more slowly to clear medications and alcohol. Alcohol can cause adverse reactions to many prescription and over-the-counter medications. Read warning labels, and ask your treatment or service provider about the effects of drinking alcohol while using your medications. For more information on alcohol and medication misuse in older adults, access the following resources:

Veterans and Military Service Members

Prescription drug misuse and abuse exists among veterans and military service members. According to the 2011 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey, 1.3% of active duty personnel reported prescription drug misuse in the past 12 months. Learn more at the Veterans and Military Families topic.

Last Updated: 10/27/2015