Editor’s Note: Last week, we blogged about non-medical prescription drug use (NMPDU) and a study that linked it to depression in college students. This week, we follow up with one of the study’s coauthors, Dr. Amanda Divin, from Western Illinois University. In the study, Dr. Divin found that young women were more likely to abuse painkillers than young men. We wanted to learn more.

PAR: Why might females be more likely than males to use painkillers if they were feeling hopeless, sad, depressed, or suicidal?

Dr. Divin: Well, there are lots of reasons. First, the properties of opioid painkillers are that they block pain reception in the brain but also increase release of dopamine in the brain which results in euphoria. So the pharmacological properties of painkillers make them attractive to people who may be feeling the blahs of depression or other depressive symptoms.

Second, research indicates that females have greater exposure to prescription drugs with addictive potential (e.g., opioid painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs) and are more likely to be prescribed a drug than males. If you look at the literature, and even empirical evidence, it's very common for a woman to go to a doctor complaining of symptoms, and she is given a prescription for a painkiller or sedative, whereas a male may be given different advice or treatment.

Third, women are more likely to suffer from depression. Their physiology also makes them more likely to become addicted to painkillers (females actually need a lower dose of opioids than males do to experience the same amount of painkilling effects).

If you put all those things together, it almost seems like common sense that females are more likely to self-medicate. I do want to point out, however, there have been other studies which have found the opposite—that it’s males [who are more likely to self-medicate]. There is still a lot of research and replication that needs to be done.

PAR: Why did you decide to conduct this study? How did it affect you personally?

Dr. Divin: I'm a professor, so I work with college students every day. It’s not at all uncommon that a student will come talk to me about their problems. It’s very common that prescription drug use or depression/suicidal thoughts are among those problems. In talking with my colleague Keith Zullig [from West Virginia University], who has done a lot of research on prescription drugs, we decided this was an area that really needed to be investigated. This study personally affected me in a couple of ways: I read just about every single article that had ever been printed regarding prescription drug use—and wow, did this open my eyes to what a commonplace, everyday sort of thing NMPDU is, how easy it is to acquire prescription drugs, and just how socially acceptable it has become. Both the NMPDU and suicide literature also opened my eyes to the stress college students are under nowadays and how stress, depression, and NMPDU are all connected. I will say some of the scariest things I learned from doing this research are about the very dangerous side effects and risks that prescription drugs carry.

PAR: What advice would you give to college students using non-medical prescription drugs?

Dr. Divin: My best advice would include a few things:

(1) If you're feeling depressed, the solution isn’t going to be found in a pill bottle. NMPDU only offers a temporary solution to a very real and pervasive problem. The best thing to do is go see a professional. On most college campuses, seeing a doctor or mental health professional is free! In the final analysis, you are just temporally postponing the problem and possibly creating others in the process.

(2) Prescription drugs carry very real and dangerous side effects. Just because they were approved by the FDA doesn't mean you’re not going to have an adverse or deadly reaction.

(3) If you are currently taking several different prescription drugs non-medically, be very careful of the possible drug interactions.

(4) There is no shame in admitting you have a problem and need help.

 

This interview was conducted by Grace Gardner, a recent graduate from the University of South Florida and an editorial assistant in the Production Department at PAR.
Although more common in teens and young women, eating disorders are affecting a growing number of older women, according to a new study published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders. The research, led by Cynthia Bulik, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Eating Disorders Program at the University of North Carolina, surveyed 1,849 women aged 50 years and older from across the U.S. The survey included questions about eating disorder symptoms, dieting and body checking behaviors, and weight and shape concerns. Among the sometimes surprising results, 13 percent of those surveyed reported eating disorder symptoms such as excessive dieting, binge eating, and purging; 62 percent said that their weight or shape has a negative impact on their lives.

“The disorders have serious physical as well as emotional consequences,” said Bulik in a June 21 interview with USA Today. “Part of my goal is to make this an issue all doctors need to be aware of regardless of a woman’s age. Many think eating disorders end at age 25. They exist at every age, we're finding.”

Although eating disorders have a serious negative impact on health at any age, the problems are compounded in older women, whose immune systems can be weaker and whose bone density is often lower. Bulik often sees severe osteoporosis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and cardiovascular health issues linked to eating disorders in older patients (American Medical Association online newsletter, July 9).

One of the country’s first residential treatment centers for eating disorders, the Renfrew Center reports a 42 percent increase over the last 10 years in the number of women aged 35 years and older seeking treatment at its clinics. Some of the center’s older patients have struggled with eating disorders or other weight issues for many years, while others developed an eating disorder for the first time later in life.

“We ask the question, what are the triggers to mid- and late-life eating disorders?” Bulik said in the USA Today interview. “They’re talking about divorce, loss, children leaving home, children coming home, being in the sandwich generation when you’re taking care of children and your parents…. Food can be seen as a way to regulate mood during these times.”

Some attribute part of the increase in eating disorders among older women to more frequent diagnoses based on doctors’ greater awareness of the issue. But whatever the cause, it’s clear that eating disorders are not limited to the young—and older women are seeking help more often as they struggle with weight and shape concerns.

What do you think? Have you noticed an increase in the number of older clients with symptoms of eating disorders? PAR wants to hear from you, so leave a comment and join the conversation!