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Addiction In The Elderly

It's not uncommon to develop an addiction later in life, but the health effects of substance abuse for those over the age of 65 can be even more dangerous than in younger users.

Senior Citizens and Substance Abuse


Drug and alcohol abuse among the elderly is a rapidly growing health problem 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.

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 drug-abusing behavior that can result in a full-scale addiction.

Potential triggers for drug or alcohol addiction in the elderly are:

  • Retirement
  • Death of a family member, spouse, pet or close friend
  • Loss of income or financial strains
  • Relocation or placement in a nursing home
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Family conflict
  • Mental or physical health decline (depression, memory loss, major surgeries, etc.)

The Dangers of Elderly Substance Abuse

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.

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Challenges In Identifying Addiction In The Elderly

elderly addiction

Alcohol or drug abuse may actually mimic symptoms of other medical or mental health disorders, such as diabetes, dementia or depression.

This makes it easy for doctors who encounter an older patient to chalk up declining mental or physical health simply 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.,

Symptoms of Addiction In Senior Citizens

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

Some signs of elderly drug abuse to look for include: 

  • Memory problems
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Irritability, sadness, 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.

Elderly Abuse Statistics


17 percent 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 percent of adults over 65 are given some type of prescription medicine, according to the National Counsil on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.


According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 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 Into Treatment Now

The alarming rate at which individuals 65 years 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 need help finding a treatment program, please call us now.

Sources & Author Last Edited: February 16, 2016

  1. Treatment Improvement Protocol. (1998). Substance Abuse Among Older Adults: An Invisible Epidemic. Retrieved on January 29, 2016, from:
  2. Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. (2015). Substance Abuse Among the Elderly: A Growing Problem. Retrieved on January 29, 2016, from:
  3. Psychiatric Times. (2012). Substance Abuse in Aging and Elderly Adults. Retrieved on January 29, 2016, from:
  4. The New York Times. (2013). A Rising Tide of Substance Abuse. Retrieved on January 29, 2016, from:
  5. Office Of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. (2016). Elderly Alcohol and Substance Abuse. Retrieved on January 29, 2016, from:
  6. National Counsil on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (2015). Alcohol, Drug Dependence And Seniors. Retrieved on January 29, 2016, from:
  7. (2016). Find the Best Inpatient Recovery Centers for Seniors. Retrieved on January 29, 2016, from:
About the Writer, Kayla Smith

Kayla Smith is the editorial director for Addiction Center. After working for years as a journalist, she joined the Addiction Center team in hopes of spreading awareness about addiction and mental health issues and helping people get treatment.

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