Are The Elderly At Risk For Substance Abuse?

elderly substance abuse

While illicit drug use generally becomes much less common once someone ages past young adulthood, this is not always the case. It’s estimated that nearly 1 million adults over the age of 65 suffer from some level of substance use disorder (SUD). This is according to 2018 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. In addition, the number of SUD related hospital, emergency department, and medical center admissions for treatment and care between 2000 and 2012 showed an interesting trend. The proportion of admissions of older adults increased from 3.4% to 7.0% according to reports from BMC Health Services Research.

What these and other related statistics and studies show is that while historically, elderly individuals are less likely to suffer from substance abuse and drug problems, the numbers are shifting as more and more seniors are experiencing issues with overdose, addiction, dependency, and misuse of their drugs and medications. There are a few things to consider when looking at these trends and what they mean for the elderly population in the country today. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, here are some essential concepts to remember. 

  • While older adults usually have lower instances of drug addiction as compared to younger populations and groups, it is currently increasing as more and more people enter retirement and senior age brackets. 
  • Older adults can be much more sensitive to drug side effects and are more susceptible to overdoses and addiction, largely because as we age, our bodies cannot absorb and break down substances like it used to years ago. 
  • Seniors are more likely to struggle with addictions and overdoses due to misusing their prescription medications either by forgetting to take their pills, forgetting they took them and taking them again, taking them too often, or using the wrong meds. 
  • Some older adults struggle with life changes, trauma, stress, and grief and will look to drugs or alcohol as a way to cope with these changes, especially if they are alone with no family or friends around them to help them out. 
  • Alcohol is the most common substance abused by senior adults though issues with overdosing and combining prescription medications is a close second in terms of hospitalizations and medical care and treatments for the elderly. 
  • Many behavioral therapies and medications can help seniors struggling with substance abuse and addictions. It is never too late to break the habit and make changes to improve quality of life and maintain better overall wellbeing. 
  • More research and clinical studies are needed to better understand the effects substance abuse of various types has on the gaining brain as well as what treatments work best for seniors and those nearing the end of their lives. 
  • Many health care providers and doctors still may confuse symptoms of substance use, abuse, and addiction with other symptoms of aging as many of them do share common traits and symptoms when considered individually. 
  • The best way to help an aging loved one who either is at risk for substance abuse or is already struggling with such is to be there for them, support them, love them, and engage with them to give them a reason to live a better life.

One closing fact to keep in mind when dealing with the topic of elder care and drug/substance abuse is how the simple act of gaining can make someone more susceptible and prone to both intentional and accidental drug abuse. As highlighted by the article Substance Use in Older Adults by the NIH, it was noted that “Physical risk factors for substance use disorders in older adults can include: chronic pain; physical disabilities or reduced mobility; transitions in living or care situations; loss of loved ones; forced retirement or change in income; poor health status; chronic illness; and taking a lot of medicines and supplements. Psychiatric risk factors include: avoidance coping style; history of substance use disorders; previous or current mental illness; and feeling socially isolated.” 

With the deck stacked against the elderly to such an extent, it is easy to see why this is a growing trend that is causing concern for many. However, with the right approach, care, and support, including assistance from mental health experts, it can be easier to keep our elderly family members safe, happy, and healthy. The key takeaway is this- our elderly population cannot do it alone and they need us to help them live as happy and healthy a life as possible, despite the struggles that come with substance abuse and addiction. 


Sources– Substance Abuse – BMC Health Services Research – National Institute on Drug Abuse – Talking with Your Adult Patients about Alcohol, Drug, and/or Mental Health Problems – Too Many Prescription Drugs Can Be Dangerous, Especially for Older Adults – Drug Use and Its Consequences Increase Among Middle-Aged and Older Adults – Recognizing Substance Abuse and Addiction in Older Adults—And How to Help – NIDA Substance Use in Older Adults – Sunshine Behavioral Health Drug and Alcohol Rehabs

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