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Many adults 65 years of age and older misuse prescription and illicit drugs, but alcohol remains the most widely abused substance among the elderly. Other drugs, such as opioids, prescription medications, and marijuana, are also commonly abused by older adults.
Thirty percent of the U.S. population consists of “baby boomers,” which is a generation of people born between 1946 and 1964. In 2011, the first wave of this generation turned 65 years old. Over the years, baby boomers have changed the country’s views concerning alcohol and drug use. For example, the prevalence rate of substance use disorder (SUD) is currently high in this age group, which means more older people need treatment for SUD.
For adults over 50 years of age, experts believe substance use disorder (SUD) rates will rise from about 3 million in 2006 to almost 7 million in 2020.
Americans over 50 may take certain medications, such as Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, Xanax, or Valium, to subdue the effects of anxiety or help reduce pain. Many people also take prescription or over-the-counter medications, as well as alcohol, to aid in sleep and cope with mental health issues. More specifically, common substances older adults abuse include:
The Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services defines two forms of alcohol abuse among older people in the U.S., which include:
Alcohol affects the elderly differently than young or middle-aged adults. As people age, their total body water and lean body mass decrease. The way the liver processes alcohol also declines, while the brain’s sensitivity to alcohol increases. As a result, older adults are less aware of their impairment while consuming alcohol and may experience worse hangovers the morning after drinking heavily. They are also more likely to get in car accidents or unintentionally hurt themselves than younger people who drink.
There are many health consequences associated with alcohol use in late adulthood, especially for those who also take certain medications, have existing health problems, or drink heavily.
Heavy drinking and alcohol use disorder (AUD) can lead to health problems in the elderly, such as:
Nonprescription and over-the-counter medications can be dangerous or even fatal when combined with alcohol or other drugs. Medications that may negatively interact with alcohol include:
Illicit drugs refer to any substances that are highly addictive and illegal to use or sell. These substances also chemically alter how your brain works, which can lead to an accidental and uncontrollable addiction. Commonly abused illicit drugs include cocaine, crack cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, inhalants, ketamine, and meth. Hallucinogens and marijuana are also illicit drugs, but they are not as addictive as other substances in this category.
Between 2002 and 2012, past-month illicit drug use among older adults between 50 and 65 years of age doubled from 3.4 percent to 7.2 percent. Further, over 19 percent of these individuals reported using illicit drugs in their lifetime.
Marijuana use is significantly more common among older adults than other illicit drugs. 4.6 million adults over 50 reported using cannabis in the last year, but less than one million of them used meth, heroin, cocaine, hallucinogens, or inhalants. Some marijuana users legally take the drug strictly for medical reasons, while others abuse it recreationally.
Older adults take and abuse prescription medications more often than younger adults, which increases their risk of developing an addiction. Many people also mix prescription medications with other substances, such as alcohol, which raises an elderly person’s likelihood of experiencing an overdose. There are two types of prescription medications that have a high potential for abuse and addiction that the elderly commonly take, including:
Over 52 percent of people who are 65 years of age and older experience some type of pain. In many cases, the pain can be so severe that individuals have an increased risk of falls, problems with mobility, and difficulties falling asleep. To reduce chronic pain, many older people turn to opioids. However, opioid addictions can develop very quickly, since these drugs have a high potential for abuse.
Doctors should be extremely cautious when prescribing elderly people opioids. This is because they have a difficult time clearing the drugs from their system due to renal function decline.
There are many reasons why an older person may begin abusing substances, such as alcohol or prescription medications. For example, possible triggers may include:
For many, these changes bring a sense of isolation and loneliness, feelings which are frequently tied to, and exacerbated by, substance abuse.
As people get older, their physical and mental health declines. Many of them self-medicate to reduce chronic pain or minimize the negative effects caused by a mental health disorder. In turn, it is extremely dangerous for older adults to misuse and abuse substances due to these issues.
More specifically, older people who abuse opioids or other prescription medications are more likely to overdose, which can lead to death. They also commonly develop other health complications, such as respiratory depression, increased pain sensitivity, painful muscle contractions, reduced bone density, and increased risk of falls, among others.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance abuse disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD), it is crucial to seek treatment right away. Older adults, in particular, are more susceptible to developing serious health complications due to substance abuse, such as heart problems or a fatal overdose.
Treatment options for elderly people with substance disorders include:
Substance use disorders among elderly people (65 years and older) are increasing at alarming rates in the U.S. each year. It is difficult, if not impossible, to quit using without professional medical supervision. Find treatment today.
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Kuerbis, Alexis, et al. “Substance Abuse among Older Adults.” Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4146436/.
“Older Adults.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 17 Dec. 2019, www.niaaa.nih.gov/older-adults.
“Prevalence of Marijuana Use Among U.S. Adults Doubles Over Past Decade.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 21 Oct. 2015, www.niaaa.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/prevalence-marijuana-use-among-us-adults-doubles-over-past-decade.
Willison, Marilyn. Be Bold: Cultivating Health and Happiness for Older Adults. Creators Publishing, August 8, 2019.