Why Are Older Adults Abusing Drugs More Than Ever?

By: 
Steve Trevino
January 19, 2023

Substance abuse among older adults is a significant issue that can have severe consequences for the health and well-being of older adults and those around them. Despite this, drug abuse rates among older adults are increasing faster than any other age group. A 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration survey found that approximately one million seniors above 65 (or 2% of the senior population) had a substance use disorder in the past year. Some 3% use marijuana, and 1 in 10 engage in binge drinking.

The pandemic didn't help either, as lockdowns disrupted routines, isolation, and fear spread. 2020 reports from the National Center for Health Statistics showed a shocking 53% increase in opioid-related deaths among the baby boomers over the previous year. Alcohol-related deaths, which had already been rising for a decade in this age group, rose by 18%.

All these numbers lead us to the question, why are more older adults in the United States abusing drugs than ever before? This article will explore potential causes of this trend, including loneliness, boredom, mental health problems, and lack of access to appropriate healthcare.

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Prescription Medication

One of the key factors behind increasing substance abuse among older adults is the use of prescription medications. Older adults may face an increased risk of chronic pain, heart disease, and other health conditions as they age.

As part of quality health care, prescription medications can help relieve symptoms and improve the quality of life. However, if the medication is misused, it could lead to abuse. Sadly, many senior citizens abuse prescription medications for reasons like:

  • Managing chronic pain: Many older adults experience chronic pain due to age-related conditions such as arthritis, back pain, and neuropathy. Prescription medicines can help alleviate this pain, but some people may misuse the drugs to manage their discomfort.
  • Multiple medications: Older adults are often prescribed numerous medications to manage various health conditions, and the interactions between these medications can increase the risk of side effects and addiction.
  • Limited access to other forms of treatment: For some older adults, prescription medications may be the only treatment available to them due to limited mobility or access to other forms of care.
  • Accidental misuse: Older adults may overdose or accidentally take more medication than prescribed due to confusion about dosages or forgetting when they took the last dose. Unfortunately, this misuse can exacerbate existing mental conditions.

Social Isolation

Social isolation, or the lack of social connections and relationships, can be a risk factor for substance abuse in adults of all ages. That's because it can lead to negative emotions such as loneliness, boredom, and stress.

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Older adults may be more vulnerable to social isolation due to retirement, losing a spouse or other loved ones, or limited mobility. They may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with these negative emotions. Social isolation can also increase the risk of mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, which can increase the risk of substance abuse.

Mental Health Issues

Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairments can increase the risk of substance abuse in older adults. These mental health issues may be due to various factors, including the natural aging process, physical health problems, social isolation, or other stressors.

Older adults with mental health issues may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their emotions or self-medicate for their mental health problems. Substance abuse can temporarily relieve negative emotions but can also lead to addiction and other negative consequences. Substance abuse can also exacerbate mental health problems and create a cycle of substance abuse and mental health issues.

Other Common Causes of Drug Abuse Among the Elderly

  • Retirement: Retirement can leave many older adults feeling idle and unfulfilled. Without a job to occupy their time, some may turn to drugs or alcohol to fill the void.
  • Grief: Grief can be difficult to deal with, and some older adults may use drugs or alcohol to cope with their grief and pain associated with the death of a loved one.
  • Lack of Knowledge: Many older adults may not understand the potential short and long-term risks associated with prescription medications and other drugs.
  • Financial Issues: Financial issues can lead to stress and depression, increasing the risk of substance abuse.
  • Loss of purpose: Retirement or other lifestyle changes can leave some older adults feeling unfulfilled and without a sense of purpose. They may turn to drug abuse as a way to fill the void.
  • Trouble sleeping: Insomnia can be a problem for many older adults, and some may turn to drugs or alcohol to get some much-needed rest.
  • Family conflict: Some senior citizens may use substances to relieve the tension and stress caused by a family conflict.

Impacts of Drug Abuse Among Older Adults

Substance abuse among older adults can seriously impact physical and mental health and the overall quality of life. Some of the potential impacts of drug abuse among older adults include:

  • Physical health problems: Substance abuse can increase the risk of falls, accidents, and other injuries. It can also contribute to developing or worsening physical health conditions, such as liver or kidney damage, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory problems.
  • Mental health problems: Substance abuse can lead to or exacerbate mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairments. It can also lead to social isolation and decreased participation in activities, negatively impacting overall health and well-being.
  • Interactions with medications: Substance abuse can also lead to drug interactions, which can cause harmful side effects or reduce the effectiveness of the medicines.
  • Financial impacts: Substance abuse can also have economic consequences, as the costs of drugs and treatment can be high.

Challenges in Identifying Addiction in the Elderly

Age-related changes can make it difficult for caregivers and healthcare providers to recognize and diagnose substance abuse in older adults. These age-related changes include changes in metabolism, which can affect how quickly and effectively a person's body processes drugs. In addition, older adults may be less likely to report symptoms of substance abuse, as they may feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit that they are having a problem with drugs or alcohol.

These age-related changes can make it difficult for healthcare providers to identify addiction in an older adult accurately. For this reason, it is essential for caregivers and healthcare providers to be aware of the risk factors and warning signs of substance abuse among older adults.

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Some Warning Signs of Drug Abuse in Older Adults

Some common signs that may indicate an older adult is abusing drugs or alcohol include:

  • Changes in behavior
  • Memory problems
  • Lack of interest in activities
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Unexplained mood swings
  • Increased secrecy or isolation
  • Financial difficulties
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Changes in hygiene
  • Irritability, sadness, and depression

Treating Substance Abuse in Older Adults

Addiction treatment in older adults should be tailored to the individual's age and health status. Treatment options include medication-assisted treatment, behavioral health therapies, counseling, and support groups. In some cases, long-term residential care may be necessary to ensure the individual gets the treatment they need to successfully manage addiction and live a healthy life.

It is also important to remember that addiction in older adults can be caused by underlying medical or mental health conditions. Therefore, it is essential to address any underlying issues to ensure that the individual receives comprehensive care and support.

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About The Author: 
Steve Trevino
Steve Trevino is married to Julie, his high school sweetheart and they have two daughters. He is the founder and executive director of CrossCentral Church and Recovery Center. With experience in both non-profit and for-profit treatment, he has helped thousands find freedom from addiction through residential programs, recovery workshops and consulting around the world.

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