Addiction in the elderly population is a surprisingly pervasive problem and growing public health concern that’s only beginning to get attention. Drug addiction in the elderly can go under the radar for several reasons. Addiction among older people can be especially dangerous and deadly as well.
Understanding Substance Abuse in Older Adults
We typically associate substance use, experimentation, and addiction with adolescence and young adult populations. However, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, almost a million adults 65 and older had a substance use disorder. Now, following the pandemic, this number is likely much higher.
Certain components of aging could make older people more susceptible to addiction and the effects of drugs. We don’t currently know much about the impact of psychoactive and addictive substances on the aging brain, but it’s something researchers are looking at.
- We know that as we age, we metabolize substances more slowly, and our brains can be more sensitive to certain things, including prescription and illicit drugs.
- When someone gets older, they’re more likely to have memory loss, heart and lung issues, and mood disorders. Drugs can worsen these medical conditions, making the consequences of substance use more severe than in younger people.
- Older people are already more at risk of accidents, including falling and car accidents. Exposure to drugs and alcohol can raise the risk further.
The number of drug overdose deaths in people 65 and older in the U.S. went up by 521% between 1999 and 2019. Adults between the ages of 55 and 64 have seen the most significant increase in overdose deaths in the past five years.
We tend to assume if a medication is prescribed, it’s inherently safe, but this isn’t the reality. Prescription medications can be among the most deadly and dangerous substances and the most addictive.
When people age, chronic health conditions become common. As a result, older age groups are more frequently prescribed various types of medications to manage these. The higher exposure rates to possibly addictive medicines can be an addiction risk factor.
A study of adults between 57 and 85 years old found mixing medicines was common, including prescriptions, over-the-counter drugs, and supplements. More than 80% of participants reported using at least one prescription each day. Almost half of the respondents said they used five medications or more.
These numbers highlight the risk of accidental drug misuse, dangerous interactions, and possible mental health symptoms.
For example, in a 2019 study, in patients older than 50, more than 25% abusing prescription opioids or benzodiazepines had suicidal ideation, compared to 2% who didn’t use them.
Benzodiazepines are for the treatment of insomnia, panic attacks, and anxiety. Specific benzodiazepines include Valium, Xanax and Klonopin. There is an abuse and addiction risk.
Opioid Addiction in the Elderly
One of the most pressing topics to discuss as far as drug addiction in the elderly involves opioid medications. Opioids are prescription pain medications. Also known as narcotics, these painkillers are prescribed to relieve moderate to severe pain and, less often, chronic pain.
While they effectively treat pain, they’re also central to the ongoing opioid epidemic, having killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
- Opioids bind to receptor sites throughout the central nervous system.
- These medications change how signals are sent between the body and the brain.
- Opioids also slow down functions of the nervous system, like heart rate and breathing.
- Taking narcotics puts you at risk of an overdose. This risk is especially high in older adults.
- When you’re older, your body processes and metabolizes medications differently, raising the risk of overdose. Existing health conditions also play a role.
- While doctors are much more rigorous in screening for substance abuse problems when prescribing opioids than just a few years ago, older people tend to be under-screened.
- There’s often a misconception in healthcare that older people won’t abuse opioids or develop an addiction, so screening isn’t as thorough.
Alcohol Abuse Among the Elderly
It’s not just rates of prescription drug abuse rising among the elderly. So are alcohol use and misuse.
In a 2021 study from the University of Michigan, 20% of older adult respondents said they drank four or more times a week.
Twenty-seven percent said they’d had six or more drinks at least once in the past year. Seven percent reported blackouts related to heavy alcohol use.
Why is Addiction in the Elderly a Growing Problem?
Addiction to both prescription and illicit substances in the elderly is a growing issue for many reasons.
We’ve briefly touched on a few of these.
- First, older people have access to more prescription drugs than other age groups. These medicines help them manage health conditions, but they also have risks.
- Older people may see multiple doctors for varying conditions, so they could be getting interacting prescriptions.
- An older person may have physical pain they need to treat or physical disabilities.
- Prescription drugs, including benzodiazepines and opioids, can be addictive even if you use them exactly as intended and prescribed.
- Another reason older and elderly adults are more at risk for addiction issues is because they might not take their medicines carefully. They could have memory problems or forget what they’ve taken, so they use more than their prescription calls for.
- Older people tend to have more social isolation than younger people, diminishing quality of life. They aren’t going to work every day in most cases or interacting with friends and family as much. This creates loneliness, so drugs or alcohol can become a form of self-medication.
- There’s also less oversight when an elderly person lives alone. They could be misusing substances, but no one knows what’s going on if someone isn’t checking in on them regularly.
The pandemic worsened many of these issues. For example, more isolation can raise the risk of substance abuse, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
Signs of Addiction in the Elderly
When people age, their health can decline in different ways, making it harder to spot the signs of drug addiction in the elderly. Generally, some of the signs of substance abuse or addiction in the elderly can include:
- Worsening memory problems
- Unexplained injuries or bruises
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Shifts in eating habits
- Sadness, irritability, or depression
- Symptoms of other new or worsening mental health issues or mental health disorders
- Not keeping up with bathing and hygiene
- Loss of touch with loved ones
- No interest in usual activities
Getting Addiction Treatment for the Elderly in Los Angeles
If you have a loved one who’s older, one of the best things you can do for them is staying connected.
Check-in often, and if you have the chance to accompany them to doctor’s appointments, that can help. If you go with them, you can keep track of their prescriptions, talk to their doctor about the medicines they’re taking and get information about potential side effects.
If you suspect your loved one might already have a substance abuse problem like an opioid use disorder, treatment options are available specifically for older adults. Treatment might involve individual therapy counseling, group therapy, and other behavioral therapy approaches. Treatment for a co-occurring mental illness can be especially helpful.