Substance Abuse in Older Adults

Older generations have not typically had high rates of substance abuse (drugs or alcohol) compared to their younger counterparts. However, this may change as members of the baby boom generation (the first wave turned 65 in 2011) enter their senior years.

According to the National Institutes of Health, baby boomers are distinct from previous generations. They came of age during the 1960s and 1970s when attitudes about drugs and alcohol use became more relaxed, casual, and accepted. Throughout their adult lives, substance abuse rates remain high for baby boomers and are expected to continue as they age.

Furthermore, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that opioid misuse among older Americans is becoming a growing public health concern. Many seniors are prescribed opioids to treat chronic and debilitating pain conditions. While opioids greatly improve the quality of life for many older adults, long-term use can lead to addiction.


Risk Factors for Substance Abuse

There are a several reasons for substance abuse in older adults:

  • Chronic pain
  • Physical disabilities
  • General decline in physical/mental health
  • Depression/anxiety
  • Grief from loss of spouse/partner/friends/pets
  • Isolation either from living alone or in an unfulfilled relationship
  • Forced retirement
  • Sleep issues
  • History of drug/alcohol problems
  • Moving to long-term care


Health Risks of Substance Abuse

Many older adults, who have abused substances for decades, continue the pattern once they reach 65. On the other hand, some seniors begin their addictions later in late. In either case, it is important to identify and screen older adults for substance abuse so they can get the treatment they need. As the body ages, the way it is able to process and metabolize drugs and alcohol changes. Overall, aging increases your body’s sensitivity to these substances and lessens your ability to tolerate them. In fact, drug and alcohol abuse poses particular health risks to older adults including:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Interaction with prescription medications
  • Dizziness and disorientation leading to an increase risk of falls
  • Cognitive decline and memory problems
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Family and financial problems


How to Identify Substance Abuse

If you are concerned about your use of drugs and alcohol (or are worried about an older loved one) ask these questions to help identify if there may be a substance abuse problem:

  • Have you ever felt you should cut down on your use of either drugs or alcohol?
  • Do you ever feel guilty or shameful about your use of substances?
  • Do you get annoyed if friends and family make jokes or criticize you about your drinking?
  • Is the use of alcohol or drugs part of your morning routine?


If you answered yes to any of these questions make an appointment to see your primary care doctor.  A physician will ask your more detailed questions and give you  a complete assessment. If it is determined you have a substance abuse issue you can be referred to a treatment option such as an addiction specialist, program, or counseling.



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