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The Impact of Addiction on Older Adults

Drug addiction and alcohol abuse are often seen as issues occurring mostly in young people. In fact, research has shown that most high school students have tried some form of alcohol or drugs. Young minds and bodies are not developed enough to fight off the potential effects of addiction. As we age, though, our bodies and minds also change. We now understand the serious impact of addiction on older adults as well.

Addiction by the Numbers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that two-thirds of students have tried alcohol and about half have used marijuana by the time they are high school seniors. Likewise, the National Institute on Drug Abuse has found that 80 percent of older patients, from 57 to 85 years of age, use at least one prescription medication every day. More than half of this age group take more than five medications or supplements every day. The potential for misuse and addiction grows for the older population in part because the prevalence of chronic condition increases. Older adults tend to use a higher number of prescription medications for pain control and that can lead to increased misuse and addiction rates. One study found that the prescription rates for benzodiazepines and opioid medications are much higher in adults age 65-80. In addition, the rates of misuse-related emergency department visits are increasing among older adults.

Contributing Factors to Addiction in Older Adults

It is this increased rate of prescription medication use that leads to older adults being more vulnerable to misuse and addiction. Other factors include:

  • Increased medication sensitivity due to slower metabolisms
  • Chronic conditions such as pain, sleep disorders/insomnia, and anxiety
  • Increased likelihood of being prescribed opioid analgesics or central nervous system depressants such as benzodiazepines
  • Increased use of alcohol combined with medications
  • Higher rate of medication use over longer periods.

Approximately one-fourth of older adults use prescription medications that have a potential to be misused and abused. Isolation, multiple medication use, and a lack of screening by health professionals for addiction are also contributing factors to the serious impact of addiction on older adults.

Hidden Signs

Addiction in older adults is not always immediately recognized or identified, even by health professionals. The symptoms of substance abuse and addiction are similar to those associated with dementia, depression, and other issues facing older adults, including:

  • Increased fatigue
  • Diminished cognitive capacities, including processing and memory problems
  • Balance problems

In addition, older adults are more likely to try to hide their alcohol or drug use and are less likely to seek professional help for their addiction.

Changing Effects of Substance Use and Abuse

Just as teenagers’ bodies are changing, increasing their potential for addiction, so are older adults’ bodies. Aging affects the body’s ability to process alcohol, for example. Older drinkers may find that they cannot drink as much or for the same period of time as they could when they were younger. The effects of the alcohol are felt much sooner and remain longer in an older adult. Older adults are more sensitive and have a decreased tolerance. Metabolism slows as the body ages as well, so the alcohol remains in the blood system at higher levels for a longer period of time. The result can be an increased danger of accidents, falls, and injuries after just a few drinks. Adults over the age of 65 take more prescription and over-the-counter medications than any other age group in the US. Those medications can cause adverse side effects for older adults, often making thinking and accomplishing regular daily activities more difficult. Medications may also counteract or contradict each other and may be mixed often with alcohol, making the problem even worse.

Treatment for Older Adults

Although the content of an addiction treatment program may be the same, the approach and presentation should be tailored to older adults who are addicted. Accommodations may need to be made for participants with cognitive, hearing, or vision issues. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends guidelines for helping older adults in addiction treatment programs:

  • Group treatment should be age-specific, supportive and nonconfrontational, with the aim of building or rebuilding self-esteem
  • Ensure pace and content of treatment is appropriate for an older person
  • Offer assistance in coping with depression, loneliness and loss (e.g., death of a spouse, retirement)
  • Focus on rebuilding the person’s social support network

Contact BRC Recovery to Learn More About Addiction in Older Adults At BRC Recovery, we offer uniquely structured services and provide personal attention to each client’s needs. You can find peace after addiction, at any age. Call us at 866-461-1759 to learn more about how we can help you.