When we think about addiction or drug and alcohol abuse, we often associate it with younger people. After young adulthood, illicit drug use typically tends to go down, yet there’s a divergent trend happening. More adults who are older are living with substance use disorders.
In 2018, almost one million people 65 and older in the U.S. were thought to have a substance use disorder, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Following the pandemic, that number is likely much higher now.
Why is addiction in the elderly becoming an increasing and worrisome problem?
Multiple factors play a role in rising rates of drug addiction in elderly people. Understanding these factors is important so that we can help older people who are loved ones and also start to make strides in research and medical care.
What are the Reasons for Addiction in the Elderly?
Drug addiction in elderly people can have many reasons. Often older people are affected by more than one of these factors, which can include:
- Loneliness and isolation
- Medical conditions, including chronic pain
- Physical disabilities due to rheumatic diseases like arthritis and other conditions more common in late life
- Financial issues
- Death of a loved one
- Mental illnesses including depression, anxiety disorders, and other co-occurring disorders
- Financial strain
- Loss of a sense of purpose
- Using multiple prescription medications
As we age, our lives change. People retire, so they’re no longer in the daily routines they likely participated in for decades. This is significantly impacting the baby boomer generation right now. They might relocate or downsize, their family may not live near them, and they can experience more loss in their lives.
These can raise the risk of drug misuse and addiction at any age, and the older adult population is no exception. Drugs or alcohol can become a way to self-medicate or cope in the elderly population.
Aging can lead to physical and social changes that increase substance abuse vulnerability.
All the addiction risk factors were present in the older age group before COVID-19, but that situation potentially worsened these factors.
Older people were encouraged to isolate socially, which means they may have gone years without seeing loved ones. That sense of disconnection can worsen physical and mental health problems and substance abuse. There were fewer opportunities for loved ones to check in on the well-being of their older relatives throughout the pandemic.
The Effects of Drugs On Older People
There are many risk factors for addiction prevalent in older populations. These substances can have more significant effects on them, too, increasing the risks.
When we age, our bodies metabolize substances more slowly. Our brains can become more sensitive to the effects of drugs and alcohol. Substances can cause more extreme cognitive impairment in older people.
Older people are more likely to have memory, mood, lung, and heart disorders. Drugs and alcohol can make these conditions worse.
Drugs and alcohol effects, like impaired coordination and reaction time, can lead to falls and car accidents.
Commonly Abused Drugs by the Elderly
There are certain drugs that older people are more likely to misuse. Prescription drug misuse is especially high on that list.
Aging people often have a variety of medications they take for chronic health conditions.
Studies show it’s common among people between the ages of 57 and 85 to mix various prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and supplements. In a study of 3,000 people in this age group, more than 80% used at least one prescription every day.
Opioid addiction in elderly people is increasingly more problematic than the abuse of illicit substances.
Opioids are prescription pain medicine. These medicines interact with the brain and central nervous system to reduce pain. At the same time, they slow down the functionality of the central nervous system.
- Prescription opioids are highly addictive, and because of the CNS slowdown they cause, they can also lead to overdoses and death due to respiratory depression and brain damage.
- When someone has an opioid use disorder, it’s difficult for them to stop using the drugs independently.
- Stopping opioid prescriptions cold turkey without a safe detox environment can lead to serious withdrawal symptoms.
- Opioid medications are prescribed for medical conditions such as chronic pain, heart disease, and advanced severe pain from cancer.
- The effects of prescription drug abuse are similar to heroin, which is also an opioid tied to serious addiction issues.
- The risk of overdose with these pain medications can go up when combined with certain other substances like alcohol or benzodiazepines.
These medications include Klonopin and Xanax, among others. Benzodiazepines are for the treatment of panic, anxiety, and insomnia.
They are addictive on their own and, as mentioned, increase the risk of overdose when combined with opioids.
Alcohol use disorder rates increased enormously during the pandemic among most age groups, including older people.
Alcohol can have more profound effects on older people and increase the risk of being hurt.
Drinking can also cause many health problems or worsen them. For example, it affects liver health and raises the risk of cancer.
We’ve talked about this a bit already, but older people are at an especially high risk of dangerous effects that can come from mixing medications that are part of their daily treatment plan.
- Older people are more likely to have complex chronic health conditions requiring them to see multiple doctors and specialists.
- These medical providers might not know every medication someone is on, so they could inadvertently prescribe something that shouldn’t be taken with another medication.
- It can be harder for a geriatric patient to remember which medicines to take and when.
- They might take things together that shouldn’t be or take higher doses than they’re supposed to.
What are the Signs of Addiction in the Elderly?
The signs of addiction in the elderly can be harder to spot than in other age groups because they look similar to symptoms of other co-occurring conditions.
Signs of addiction in the elderly include:
- Problems with memory
- Different sleep habits
- Depression or sadness
- Unexplained pain
- Changes in eating patterns
- Not keeping up with personal hygiene
- Disconnecting from loved ones
- No interest in usual activities
What Can You Do?
If you believe your elderly relative could be experiencing a substance abuse problem, there are things you can do.
- First, connect with them more and check in when you can.
- If you don’t live nearby, you could set up times to use video calls.
- If you live nearby, visit frequently and keep an eye on things like their medicine cabinet.
- If you can go to doctor’s appointments with your loved one, this will help you learn more about the medications they use, and you can talk about potentially harmful interactions. You can ask their treatment providers any questions you might have.
There are treatment centers and programs for elderly patients dealing with addiction. You can find the right treatment option for their specific needs. Behavioral therapies are an effective treatment, and other options are available too.
The big thing to remember is that just because someone is an elderly adult doesn’t mean they can’t have a substance use disorder. We have to start recognizing this growing problem, which can diminish the quality of life, negatively affect health and even lead to an earlier death.