A Growing Problem: Drug and Alcohol Addiction in Seniors

Drug and alcohol addiction among senior citizens is a growing problem that often goes unnoticed. While substance abuse is commonly associated with younger individuals, the older population is not immune to this issue. In fact, substance addiction in seniors is on the rise, creating a silent epidemic that demands attention and action.

Senior Citizens and Substance Abuse

In the United States, approximately one million people 65 and older have an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Some of these individuals, called early-onset substance abusers, have been using substances for decades. Other seniors, called late-onset substance abusers, show signs of addiction later in life, usually after age 60 or 65. Prescription painkillers and alcohol are the two substances most commonly abused by older adults. Overdose deaths, intentional or accidental, have quadrupled among seniors from 2002 to 2021.

Understanding the Causes of Addiction in Older Adults

Drug or alcohol addiction in senior citizens can stem from one or more physiological, psychological, or environmental factors. Below are ten of the more common reasons for substance addiction among seniors.

  1. Chronic Pain Management: Many seniors experience chronic pain due to conditions like arthritis, neuropathy, or injuries from falls. To manage this pain, they may be prescribed opioid painkillers. Unfortunately, these medications can be highly addictive, especially if not carefully managed. Seniors might become dependent on these drugs for pain relief, leading to addiction.
  2. Mental Health Disorders: Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness are common in senior citizens. These conditions might stem from significant life changes, such as retirement, the death of a spouse, or social isolation. Drugs and alcohol can initially seem like solace or escape, contributing to dependency and addiction over time.
  3. Social Isolation: As people age, they often face increased isolation due to loss of mobility, loss of a spouse, or friends moving away or passing. This isolation can lead to depression and anxiety. Some individuals may attempt to self-medicate using drugs or alcohol, leading to addiction.
  4. Physical and Cognitive Decline: The aging process can bring about a decline in physical health and cognitive functions, such as memory loss or dementia. This decline can be distressing and might lead some seniors to turn to drugs or alcohol as a form of self-medication, leading to addiction.
  5. Lack of Purpose: Retirement and the empty nest syndrome can leave some seniors feeling like they lack purpose or direction in life. This feeling might drive them towards substance abuse as a way to fill the void or bring excitement into their lives.
  6. Grief and Bereavement: Older adults often experience grief more frequently, whether from losing a spouse, friends, siblings, or even pets. This grief can be overwhelming, leading some to turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to cope.
  7. Access to Medications: With increased health issues, seniors typically have more access to prescription medications. Some of these medications have addictive properties. Without proper monitoring, it can be easy for seniors to become dependent on these substances.
  8. Under diagnosis or Misdiagnosis: Addiction in seniors can often go unnoticed or misdiagnosed as symptoms of aging or other health conditions. This lack of recognition can prevent the individual from receiving the help they need, allowing the addiction to worsen.
  9. Inadequate Pain Management Education: Seniors may not always receive adequate education on managing pain without relying heavily on prescription medications. This lack of knowledge can lead to a dependence on drugs as the primary means of pain relief.
  10. Stigma and Shame: There can be significant stigma and shame associated with addiction, especially among older generations. This can prevent seniors from seeking help. They fear judgment from their peers and loved ones.

Health Concerns of Substance Abuse in Seniors

Prolonged exposure to drugs and alcohol can significantly impair cognitive functions, leading to a deterioration in memory, attention, and problem-solving skills. This cognitive decline is especially concerning in seniors, as it can hasten the onset of dementia-related conditions and interfere with their ability to manage medications and maintain independence. As a person ages, their body processes substances less efficiently, putting them at a heightened risk for overdose and adverse reactions, which can cause or worsen health complications.

Substance addiction in seniors is also linked to an increased risk of developing or exacerbating cardiovascular diseases, liver damage, and certain types of cancer. The weakening of the immune system is another serious consequence, leaving the elderly more susceptible to infections and illnesses. Furthermore, the likelihood of sustaining injuries from falls increases when drug or alcohol impairment is involved. These injuries can result in long-term disabilities, further eroding the quality of life and independence.

We Can Help

Alcohol and drug addiction is a chronic, treatable disease. If you or a loved one is battling addiction, the professionals at English Mountain Recovery in the Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee can help. We offer gender-specific programs based on a 12-step curriculum. We will help you achieve your goal of sobriety. Contact us today.