Substance Abuse among seniors

It might not be something that most people think about, but substance abuse among seniors is a problem among United States adults. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has released an article on the subject that highlights the problem across the country. As they put it, nearly 1,000,000 adults aged 65 and older are currently battling with a substance use disorder. It’s something that has to be talked about if there’s ever going to be a solution to the problem. No one should ever have to struggle with anything as debilitating as substance abuse, but it’s happening every minute of every single day.

While this topic may be difficult for some people to think about, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel to keep in mind while you explore and discuss it. The simple fact is that the number of substance use disorder admissions to treatment facilities has been increasing over the past few decades. The number of seniors being admitted to these facilities has increase from 3.4% to 7% between the years of 2000 and 2012. That means that more people are seeking treatment for their conditions and that’s a very good thing at the end of the day.

Age Increases Vulnerability

The reason that so many adults are susceptible to substance abuse isn’t simply the fact that they’re more likely to have prescribed medications, although that’s part of it. The real reason is that, according to the NIDA: “Aging could possibly lead to social and physical changes that may increase vulnerability to substance misuse. Little is known about the effects of drugs and alcohol on the aging brain. However, older adults typically metabolize substances more slowly, and their brains can be more sensitive to drugs. One study suggests that people addicted to cocaine in their youth may have an accelerated age-related decline in temporal lobe gray matter and a smaller temporal lobe compared to control groups who do not use cocaine. This could make them more vulnerable to adverse consequences of cocaine use as they age.”

That’s basically saying that drug use in youth can make a senior more susceptible to the drugs’ effects as they age. That’s going to push them steadily toward substance abuse that will be next to impossible to get rid of in their old age. It gets even worse when you consider the fact that older men and women are at a much higher risk for health disorders that can be attributed to drug use.

Drugs make Health Conditions worse

Older adults may be more likely to experience mood disorders, lung and heart problems, or memory issues. Drugs can worsen these conditions, exacerbating the negative health consequences of substance use. Additionally, the effects of some drugs, like impaired judgment, coordination, or reaction time, can result in accidents, such as falls and motor vehicle crashes. These sorts of injuries can pose a greater risk to health than in younger adults and coincide with a possible longer recovery time.

Any older man or woman is already at risk for severe health problems when it comes to their hearts, lungs, and brains. Substances target these exact organs and can accelerate their decline. This can lead to an early death or senior years that leave them dependent on outside care. There’s already so much going against a person’s health during the golden years that any kind of substance abuse is almost certain to push them over the edge. That’s why it’s so important to face this problem head on and see it as the growing issue that it really is, all over the country and the world at large.

Medication is Part of it

The NIDA talks, at length, about the effect that prescription medication has on addiction in older Americans. “Chronic health conditions tend to develop as part of aging, and older adults are often prescribed more medicines than other age groups, leading to a higher rate of exposure to potentially addictive medications. One study of 3,000 adults aged 57-85 showed common mixing of prescription medicines, nonprescription drugs, and dietary supplements. More than 80% of participants used at least one prescription medication daily, with nearly half using more than five medications or supplements, putting at least 1 in 25 people in this age group at risk for a major drug-drug interaction.”

A study in 2019 looked at patients over the age of 50 and noted that more than 25% of older people that abused opioids or benzodiazepines expressed suicidal ideas. That was compared to just 2% of older Americans that didn’t abuse them. That’s a massive difference and only one effect that drug abuse can have on someone in their senior years. That means that there has to be careful screening of patients before these drugs are prescribed to them at the medical level.


There’s no overall agreement to the treatment involved with addiction in seniors. The one thing that everyone seems to believe in is the fact that long durations of care make better results. As the NIDA states: “Little is known about the best models of care, but research shows that older patients have better results with longer durations of care. Ideal models include diagnosis and management of other chronic conditions, re-building support networks, improving access to medical services, improved case management, and staff training in evidence-based strategies for this age group. Providers may confuse SUD symptoms with those of other chronic health conditions or with natural, age-related changes. Research is needed to develop targeted SUD screening methods for older adults. Integrated models of care for those with coexisting medical and psychiatric conditions are also needed. It is important to note that once in treatment, people can respond well to care.”

There’s no telling what the ultimate care outcome will be, but substance abuse among seniors is something that needs to be focused on. The problem is never going to fix itself. The more you know about it, the more you might be able to do to stop the problem from forming, whether in yourself or your loved ones.