Substance Abuse in Older Adults

People aged 65 and older may only make up about 13% of the population, but they account for more than one-third of total spending on prescription medications in the U.S. They are most likely out of anybody to be prescribed long-term prescriptions and also multiple prescriptions at that. Some elderly people may experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper usage of medications.

Substance abuse of alcohol and prescription drugs in elderly people is one of the fastest growing health problems facing the country. The sad fact of the matter is that this issue is unfortunately underestimated, under diagnosed, and under treated. These days there is a growing problem with limited research data and hurried office visits of primary care physicians who want to get their patients in and out so everybody can be seen for the day. Because of this, health care providers will often overlook substance abuse and misuse among older adults in the community.

What are some other reasons why this problem is often overlooked?

In elderly patients, some things may be misdiagnosed as other issues altogether. Diagnosis can be difficult and confusing because symptoms of substance abuse in older individuals can mimic symptoms of other medical and behavioral disorders that are common in this age range such as diabetes, dementia, or even depression. Some other elderly patients dealing with this issue will have a reluctance to seek professional help for what they consider to be a very private manner. Many relatives to these elders with the substance abuse issues will overlook the disorder because they are ashamed of the problem they are experiencing and just choose not to address it. Sadly, since this issue goes under the radar so often, there is an unspoken assumption that it is not worth it to treat older adults for their substance abuse disorder.

In studies done, it was also shown that baby boomers coming of age within the 60’s and 70’s when experimenting with drugs was a common thing are far more likely to use illicit drugs than any previous generation. It doesn’t stop with just prescription drugs and alcohol – no, some commonly abused drugs among more elderly adults were opiates, cocaine, and marijuana. In the case of physicians, many will avoid the subject of substance abuse as it is not highly talked of and not the first thing that will pop into their mind when it comes to health and treatments. They may also fail to see in older patients that even modest amounts of alcohol and drugs can be an issue – older patients will have a significantly reduced ability to metabolize these substances and even have increased brain sensitivity to them.

Alcohol tends to be one of the most abused substances in the elderly. With that, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that men and women aged 65 and older have no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven drinks per week. In this day and age, recognizing the signs may save a life when it comes to substance abuse in adults of any age.