Substance abuse and addiction among older adults is a growing concern and is often underestimated, overlooked, or underdiagnosed. In the United States, substance use disorders among people over 60 years old are one of the nation’s most rapidly growing health problems. As the population ages, the number of senior citizens struggling with substance use disorders will likely increase.
Statistics on Older Adults and Substance Use Disorders
- The ECE (National Center for Equitable Care for Elders) at Harvard estimates that in 2020, approximately 5.7 million older adults needed treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, about three times the number of people needing treatment in 2000.
- The substance that people 55 and older seek treatment for the most often is alcohol. Heroin is second.
- According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), up to 17% of older Americans abuse prescription drugs.
- Between 2019 and 2020, the number of alcohol-related deaths among senior citizens increased by 18.2 percent.
- Between 2009 and 2020, the number of people aged 55 or older seeking treatment for drug or alcohol addiction increased by more than 50 percent.
Addiction Can Be Difficult to Detect in Older Adults
Although the number of older adults struggling with substance use disorders continues to increase, it is impossible to know how many seniors suffer from drug or alcohol addiction. With limited research, insufficient knowledge, and rushed office visits, the signs of addiction can be overlooked or mistaken for another medical issue by healthcare providers.
For example, symptoms of addiction are often the same as other behavioral or medical disorders and age-related conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, depression, cognitive decline, or frailty. Sometimes, older adults do not want anyone to know they are drinking or using drugs and hide their substance use. They may feel ashamed of their behavior or feel it is personal.
Four Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorders in Seniors
- Decrease in Social Support: One of the main reasons older adults turn to drugs and alcohol is loneliness and social isolation. As they age, people are faced with the loss of family members and friends as they move or pass away. The lack of social interaction and family support leaves them isolated and alone. Many older adults have no meaningful relationships.
- Co-Occurring Psychiatric Disorders: The way a person perceives and responds to stimuli is affected by mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. These disorders make them more likely to try risky behaviors such as drinking or using drugs as a way of self-medicating to deal with symptoms.
- Prescription Drug Abuse: Older adults often have chronic pain or illnesses treated with pain medications that are potentially addictive. When a person abuses their prescription drugs, accidentally or intentionally, their risk of addiction increases. Some people have multiple prescriptions of the same medication from different doctors or different medications prescribed by multiple doctors.
It is critical for physicians, pharmacists, and family members to help educate seniors on the right way to use their medication and the possible side effects and dangers of mixing their medications with alcohol.
- History of Substance Misuse Disorder (formerly known as Substance Abuse) or Addiction: If an older adult has a family history of addiction, they have a higher risk of developing a drug or alcohol addiction. Research has shown that individuals are more likely to use drugs, binge drink, or engage in other risky behaviors if a person close to them has engaged in similar behaviors. The brain’s temporal lobe gray matter may have a faster age-related decline in individuals addicted to cocaine in their younger years, increasing their risk of addiction.
The Warning Signs of Addiction in Older Adults
Being aware of the warning signs of addiction is critical. A person struggling with addiction may experience memory loss, seem confused, and have difficulty concentrating. They may have a loss of coordination, walk with an unsteady gait, or fall frequently. Tremors are common.
You may start to notice a loved one’s extreme moods or that they are losing weight. Maybe they stop taking care of themselves and lose interest in going out and doing things they once enjoyed.
Help is Available
If you or a loved one is struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction, our professional staff is ready to help. You do not need to struggle alone. Contact English Mountain Recovery, located in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. Our residential treatment center offers gender-specific treatment services for physical, emotional, and spiritual healing.