The number of Americans over 60 has risen sharply in recent years, with the current population hovering at just over 74 million.
As the population has grown, the number of older adults admitted to addiction treatment facilities has doubled, and around 1 million adults over 65 have a substance use disorder (SUD).
Older adults are already subject to potentially harmful and even fatal health conditions, and substance abuse can significantly increase these risks.
Addiction among older adults is often overlooked, but receiving treatment as early as possible for this chronic health condition is often essential to maintaining health while aging.
Identifying SUDs In Older Adults
Addiction is a disease and a serious medical condition that should be treated quickly to avoid long-term mental or physical side effects.
Substance abuse occurs when someone is unable to stop consuming drugs or alcohol on their own, despite any negative consequences.
They may experience compulsions to use substances or withdrawal symptoms after stopping use of them.
Many of the common symptoms of substance abuse that younger adults experience are the same among older adults.
Symptoms of addiction may include:
- loss of interest in hobbies or activities
- changes in appetite
- sudden weight loss or gain
- depression, irritability, and other mood shifts
- withdrawal from friends and loved ones
- changes in hygiene or personal appearance
- financial instability or money problems
- changes in sleep patterns
Do Substances Affect Older Adults Differently?
Few studies have been done on the effects of substance abuse among older adults, but it is known that they often have a more difficult time metabolizing drugs and alcohol.
As we age, we face changes that can include a decline in cardiovascular system, motor system, and cognitive functions. All of these can be impacted severely by drug or alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse, for example, can lead to liver damage, strokes, seizures, and rapid cognitive decline, and many older Americans are already at risk for experiencing these health problems.
Decreased motor function while under the influence of drugs or alcohol may also lead to more falls and accidents, which can have more serious implications for older adults.
Reasons For Drug And Alcohol Addiction Among Aging Adults
While adolescents and young adults often use substances for partying, older adults typically use drugs and alcohol for different purposes.
Many older Americans use substances as self-medication for chronic physical pain or emotional stress.
Other reasons for substance use among older adults include:
- loss of a spouse and other loved ones
- difficulty sleeping
- boredom after retirement
- financial stress
- social isolation and loneliness
- history of substance abuse
- comorbid mental illnesses
- reduced physical mobility
Occasionally, substance misuse among seniors is accidental. They may forget when they last took their prescription and repeat a dose or otherwise take too much by mistake.
Substances Commonly Abused By Older Adults
Although aging adults receive addiction treatment for a wide variety of substances, there are a couple that are particularly common among this age group.
Alcohol Abuse And Aging Adults
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the most pervasive type of substance abuse found in older adults.
One study found that 65% of older adults meet the qualifications for high-risk drinking, and more than 10% of older Americans admitted to binge drinking at least once in the past month.
Alcohol can have serious health consequences for people over 65, including through interactions with common medications that this population takes for physical or mental health conditions.
Alcohol abuse also comes with increased risks for diabetes, heart failure, memory problems, liver failure, and more.
Prescription Medication Misuse Among Older Americans
Most older Americans take at least one prescription medication, and half take five or more prescription drugs and supplements.
Opioids and benzodiazepines are commonly prescribed for conditions like chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia, and more, but these drugs come with a high potential for abuse.
The number of adults over 55 seeking treatment for an opioid use disorder (OUD) rose by more than 50% between 2013 and 2015.
Additionally, increased rates of OUDs have also led to increased rates of heroin use among older adults, since heroin is sometimes cheaper and easier to obtain than prescription drugs.
Addiction Treatment Methods For Aging Adults
The first step in treating substance abuse in older adults is recognizing when a problem has begun, which can happen through addiction screenings during routine checkups.
Concerned family members can encourage their older loved ones to make and keep these doctor appointments.
Once an SUD is identified, existing behavioral health treatment options can help older adults, and specific approaches can be integrated for higher rates of success.
This may include:
- longer treatment durations
- management of co-occurring chronic pain or mental health conditions
- building senior support networks
- specialized training for treatment staff
Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is an often underutilized method among older adults, but many stand to benefit from this method when used in conjunction with behavioral therapy.
Once in treatment, many older adults do well and are able to achieve lasting recovery.
Get Help For A Substance Use Disorder
If you or a loved one is an older adult experiencing drug addiction or alcohol abuse, you are not alone. Contact us today to learn more about finding addiction treatment options.
Published on June 28, 2023
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- Elder Law Answers
- National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)