Senior Citizens And Substance Abuse

Substance abuse among the elderly (adults over the age of 65), particularly of alcohol and prescription drugs, is one of the fastest-growing health problems in the United States.

Addiction among people 65 and up is often underestimated and under-diagnosed, which can prevent them from getting the help they need.

Alcohol and prescription drug abuse affects up to 17% of adults over the age of 65 per the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Due to insufficient knowledge, limited research data, and hurried office visits, health care providers often overlook signs of substance abuse among the elderly. This is made worse by the fact that the elderly often have medical or behavioral disorders that mimic symptoms of substance abuse, such as depression, diabetes, or dementia.

According to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, substance abuse among senior citizens can be classified into two general forms: the “hardy survivor,” or those who have been abusing substances for many years and have reached 65, and the “late onset” group, which is those who form addictions later in life. Regardless of how old you are or when your addiction started, there are treatment options available to help you get back on a healthy path.

Causes Of Addiction In The Elderly

There are several things that could contribute to someone turning to substance abuse later in life. These could be health-related issues or life-changing events that take an emotional toll. These events may provoke substance-abusing behavior that can result in a full-scale addiction.

Potential triggers or causes for drug or alcohol addiction in the elderly include:

  • Memory problems
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Irritability, sadness, and depression
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to be alone often
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Losing touch with loved ones
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

The Dangers Of Substance Abuse In The Elderly

Drug or alcohol abuse among the elderly is particularly dangerous because senior citizens are more susceptible to the deteriorating effects of these substances. Individuals over 65 have a decreased ability to metabolize drugs or alcohol along with an increased brain sensitivity to them. This makes it dangerous for seniors to use drugs or alcohol at all, even if the person isn’t addicted.

Benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety, pain, or insomnia, are some of the most dangerous prescription drugs for seniors. These are generously prescribed and highly addictive. The rate of senior citizens addicted to Benzos has increased every year.

Challenges In Identifying Addiction In The Elderly

Alcohol or drug abuse may actually mimic symptoms of other medical or mental health disorders. This makes it easy for doctors who encounter an older patient to chalk up declining mental or physical health to old age.

Not long ago, a medical colleague referred a 67-year-old woman to me with mild depression, weakness, and complaints of short-term memory loss. Her physician told her there was no clear medical explanation for her symptoms, given that her physical exam, exhaustive lab tests, and brain M.R.I. were all normal… The problem, I soon discovered, was that her alcohol consumption had tripled since the death of her husband a year earlier. She did disclose to her internist that she drank but minimized the amount. She had turned to alcohol, self-medicating her grief, but it only worsened her mood and impaired her memory, typical of alcohol’s effects on the brain.

- Richard A. Friedman, M.D.,

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Symptoms Of Addiction In Senior Citizens

As people get older, their mental health, physical health, and personal relationships may start to deteriorate. Although addiction may be more difficult to recognize in this demographic, it’s important to pay attention to any unusual signs your elderly loved one displays.

Some signs of drug abuse include:

  • Memory problems
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Irritability, sadness, and depression
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to be alone often
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Losing touch with loved ones
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

Once an addiction is identified, it is critical to seek out a treatment center that has specific experience working with seniors facing addiction.

You should look for programs that specialize in this type of addiction and also offer case management services, as individuals over 65 typically lack the social support required throughout recovery. These case management services will provide the elderly with access to medical, psychiatric, and social resources to allow for a healthy lifestyle to continue after treatment.

Per the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) consensus panel, the following are recommended as effective treatment approaches for older adults in substance abuse treatment:

  • Cognitive behavioral approaches
  • Group-based approaches
  • Individual counseling
  • Medical/Psychiatric approaches
  • Marital and family involvement/family therapy
  • Case Management/Community-linked services and outreach

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Elderly Abuse Statistics



17% of people in the United States over 65 years old have abused prescription medications, according to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.



Approximately 30% of adults over 65 are given some type of prescription medicine, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.



According to the NIAAA, men and women aged 65 or older should consume no more than 1 drink daily and a maximum of 2 drinks on any occasion.

Get Help Today

The alarming rate at which individuals 65 years of age and older are developing addictions to various substances is certainly reason for concern and something that should not be ignored by medical professionals, caretakers, or family members. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction issues later in life and needs help finding a treatment program, contact a treatment provider today.