Substance Addiction in Senior Adults

When it comes to substance use disorders, almost 1 million adults ages 65 and older suffer from an addiction to alcohol or prescription medications, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). According to data from the Health and Human Services Department, in 2020 more than 800,000 seniors suffered from drug addiction and 2.7 million seniors suffer from alcohol addiction. Older adults in the baby boomer generation born in the 1940’s – 1960’s have seen a significant increase in drug and alcohol addiction with unfortunate outcomes. 

Studies have actually shown this generation of adults is abusing substances at a higher rate than the previous generation. Part of the reason may be that this generation has historically had a much more open attitude toward drugs and alcohol than previous generations. However, these estimates are still greatly underrepresented due to the fact that the demographic of senior adults regularly go undiagnosed and untreated.

A distressed elderly man sitting on a bed represents substance addiction in senior adults.

As we age, our bodies and brains become more fragile and susceptible to harm. Therefore, senior adults using drugs and alcohol are more vulnerable to the negative side effects of addiction which can cause more significant damage in comparison to younger adults. The signs and symptoms of substance use disorder in an older adult include hypersomnia (oversleeping), shakiness, more mental confusion than usual, significant weight loss, loss of appetite, increased anger and irritability, glazed eyes and the inability to control their physical balance.  

Some of the biggest contributing factors that lead senior adults to drugs come from stressful life experiences: divorce stress, death of loved ones or a spouse, retirement and job loss, loss of independence, chronic pain and medical disabilities as well as an overall decline in health and mental health. Emotional side effects of these life experiences include isolation, depression and anxiety causing them to turn to substances to cope. On top of that, many older adults are in denial and often refuse to believe they have an addiction and therefore refuse to seek any type of substance use treatment.

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The reluctance of seniors’ adults to get screened for substance abuse or addiction also plays a significant factor in the rise in numbers. Ageism can play a crucial role in treating substance use disorder in older adults. Primary care physicians fail to properly screen for substance abuse for fear of disrespecting elder seniors by suggesting they may have an addiction problem. In turn, many adult children of seniors often dismiss the possibility of an addiction problem saying, “it’s not a big deal.”

Many senior adults in general tend to have a higher prevalence of chronic pain and terminal illnesses and are often prescribed many different medications to help manage their ailments. Alcohol and opioids can interact poorly with other prescription medications that many older adults take for common ailments such as hypertension and diabetes. The term polypharmacy refers to the fact that these adults are often taking multiple types of medications simultaneously and if not carefully and properly managed, mixing and overusing medications can lead to dangerous drug interactions and severe addictions.

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Despite the alarming rise in numbers of addiction in older adults, the actual data still remains largely unidentified as this population of people is vastly under-served, unaccounted for and overlooked.