Guide to Substance Abuse in Older Adults: Risks, Warning Signs, and Treatments

Taylor Shuman Taylor Shuman Senior Tech Expert & Editor

In recent years, the number of senior citizens seeking addiction treatment in the United States has skyrocketed. The number of adults aged 55 and over who sought out addiction treatments increased by more than 50 percent between 2009 and 2020. This alarming statistic shows that substance use disorders do not discriminate and can affect any population, including older adults.

This trend concerns family members of older Americans, as well as healthcare providers and social workers who work with this vulnerable population. It’s essential to understand why seniors are increasingly suffering from addiction so we can better prevent it in older adults.

This article will discuss the risk factors associated with substance abuse and mental health issues among seniors and how family members can help their loved ones through recovery.

Table of Contents

What is a Substance Use Disorder?

Substance use disorders are characterized by intense, uncontrollable cravings for drugs and compulsive drug-seeking behaviors – even in the face of devastating consequences. Substance use can result in psychological and physical dependence on drugs or alcohol. This type of disorder is particularly concerning when it affects seniors, as they can be especially vulnerable to the consequences of drug addiction.

It’s important to note that substance use disorders do not discriminate based on age: adults, teens, and even older people can suffer from these brain disorders. The number of older adults seeking treatment for substance abuse has recently increased.

Substance use disorders can look different for everyone. Not all people will have the same signs or symptoms of a substance use disorder. For example, some people with alcohol use disorders may occasionally binge drink, while others drink daily.

It is possible to have a mild substance use disorder where you might still be able to control it on your own with family support or counseling. Other times it can be more severe and require professional help such as inpatient treatment or medication to recover. Early recognition and treatment are some of the best ways to help anyone struggling with substance abuse issues.

Expert Insights on Addiction and Substance Abuse Prevention for Seniors

Expert Insight on Addiction and Substance Abuse Prevention for Seniors

Statistics on Seniors and Substance Abuse

According to the Treatment Episode Data Set, which monitors the number of people admitted to addiction or mental health treatment centers, substance abuse among older adults may be increasing:

  • In 2020, 167,200 people aged 55 or older were admitted to addiction treatment, up from 109,412 in 2009. This represents a 53 percent increase.
  • Between 2009 and 2020, the share of older people out of all people seeking treatment jumped from five percent to 12 percent.
  • Alcohol is the substance that older adults 55+ seek treatment for most often, followed by heroin.

Percentage admitted to substance abuse treatment by age

According to the CDC, alcohol was an underlying cause of death for 11,616 adults aged 65 and over in 2020. Although alcohol caused very few deaths in this age group, the rates have increased in recent years. In fact, the number of older adults dying from alcohol-related causes rose by 18.2 percent between 2019 and 2020.

Did You Know?

Did You Know? Medicare covers certain mental health and substance use disorder services. For example, Medicare Part B takes care of costs for services in opioid treatment programs.

Risk Factors for Substance Use Disorders Among Seniors

In recent years, the number of older adults suffering from addiction has risen. This alarming trend is due to a combination of factors — including an increase in access to prescription drugs and alcohol and a decrease in family support and social interaction that occurred during the pandemic. Additionally, many older adults deal with chronic physical or mental health issues that substance use disorders can exacerbate.

Here are a few key factors contributing to the growing substance abuse problem among seniors.

1. Dwindling Social Support

One of the primary reasons older people struggle with substance use disorders is a decrease in family support and social interaction as they age. Unfortunately, social isolation is common among older adults as family members and friends move away or pass away.

When seniors lack meaningful relationships or become socially isolated, it can lead to feelings of loneliness, which increases their risk for developing mental health issues like depression – all of which can contribute to higher rates of substance abuse.

On the other hand, having strong social connections can improve mental health and reduce the risk of substance use disorders. Studies have found that increased social interaction among seniors has been linked with positive outcomes such as improved cognitive functioning and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

2. Physical Changes in the Brain

As people age, their bodies undergo changes that can affect their physical and mental health. Of course, the brain changes with age, too. Blood flow can decrease, and relationships between neurons can change, influencing cognitive function. Some experience a decrease in serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters responsible for regulating moods and emotions. Reducing these neurotransmitters has been linked with higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, increasing one’s risk for substance abuse or addiction.

3. Slowed Metabolism

According to Harvard University, older adults metabolize alcohol more slowly than younger people. This means that drugs can stay in their system longer and have a more significant effect. Additionally, their brains can be more sensitive to substances due to aging-related physical changes, such as decreased neurotransmitter levels or slowed metabolism. As a result, seniors are at an increased risk for developing substance use disorders and addiction-related behaviors like seeking out drugs despite negative consequences.

4. Co-Occurring Psychiatric Disorders

Mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety can affect how a person perceives and responds to stimuli. This makes them more vulnerable to risky behaviors like substance misuse. Seniors with co-occurring psychiatric disorders may be more likely to try drugs or alcohol to cope with their symptoms. It’s essential for family members and health care providers to be aware of this risk factor so they can take steps to prevent it in their loved ones.

5. History of Substance Abuse

A family history of substance abuse or addiction can also be a risk factor for seniors developing addiction issues. Studies have shown that people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like binge drinking or drug use if someone close to them has had similar problems.

Recent research has found that people addicted to cocaine in their youth may have an accelerated age-related decline in temporal lobe gray matter, which increases their risk of addiction. This is because cocaine use during adolescence and young adulthood can cause brain structure and function changes that persist into later life.

Many believe these structural changes could contribute to a heightened vulnerability toward addiction and other mental health issues. Early intervention strategies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or family counseling may be beneficial for preventing substance abuse issues among those at high risk for developing them.

6. Prescription Drug Abuse

The misuse of prescription medications is another prevalent issue among seniors. This can happen when older adults have access to different medicines prescribed by multiple doctors. When patients abuse their drugs – either intentionally or accidentally, it increases their risk of developing addictions. Family members and physicians need to educate seniors on proper medication usage and side effects so they can avoid any potential misuse down the line.

7. Chronic Pain

Hand-in-hand with prescription drug misuse is the prevalence of chronic pain in aging populations. Chronic pain is a common issue among senior citizens and can seriously impact their overall quality of life.

Unfortunately, chronic pain can also increase older adults’ risks of developing substance misuse issues. As they age, people may experience more aches and pains and seek out medications – both prescription and over-the-counter – to relieve their discomfort. Up to a quarter of all prescription drugs in the U.S. are used by older adults, and this increased exposure to drugs increases the risk of addiction or other negative consequences.

8. Sex

Sex can be a risk factor for substance abuse, especially alcohol abuse, in older adults. Studies have shown that older women are more prone to the harmful effects of alcohol than older men due to their lower body mass and certain biological factors. Additionally, women may drink less often than men, but the same amount of alcohol will, on average, affect a woman more severely than a man. This is why it’s vital for older women – and all people – to enjoy alcoholic beverages and other substances responsibly and mindfully.

Consequences of Substance Abuse

Substance abuse and addiction issues in older adults can lead to severe physical, mental, and emotional health issues, such as cognitive decline or depression. Some of the most common consequences of substance abuse in older adults include the following:

  • Higher risk for medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver and bone problems, memory issues, and mood disorders,
  • increased risk of falls,
  • memory loss and confusion,
  • impairment of motor skills,
  • cognitive issues,
  • social isolation,
  • financial strain due to excessive spending on drugs or alcohol,
  • and relationship difficulties with family members and loved ones.

Treating Substance Abuse in Older Adults

Inpatient treatment is an option for older adults who need around-the-clock care and support while they undergo detoxification and treatment for their substance abuse problems. This type of treatment offers a safe, structured environment with constant access to medical professionals, counselors, and other mental health professionals with expertise in treating older adults suffering from addiction.

Outpatient treatment is an alternative for older adults seeking help with substance abuse. This option allows patients to live at home while receiving necessary care. Therapists focus on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), family therapy, or group counseling to help individuals recognize patterns associated with their substance abuse problems.

Support groups are vital for older adults suffering from substance abuse issues. They offer a safe and comfortable space to talk freely and openly about one’s experiences. They can provide an opportunity for older adults to connect with peers who have gone through similar struggles, providing a forum to share advice and strategies that have proven successful in managing their addiction.

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Resources for Older Adults Struggling with Substance Use Disorders