Elderly Drug and Alcohol Abuse On The Rise

Friday, May 3rd, 2013

Drug and alcohol abuse isn’t just a younger persons disease.   The disease of addiction does not discriminate against the young or old, men or women.  In fact, several recent studies have indicated that seniors and the elderly are even more at risk for developing drug and alcohol abuse and addiction problems.  A recent Institute of Medicine report indicates that it may be more than a trend, even going so far as to indicate it is an epidemic.  With more than 78 million aging baby boomers, this trend or epidemic is sure to become a hot topic in the healthcare field.  It is estimated that between 14 and 20 percent of elderly American’s have substance abuse problems.

Many people have difficulty recognizing that their mother, father or even grandparent could be addicted to drugs and alcohol.  Most people are more fearful of their children becoming addicted rather than their parents, but this is a false assumption. A 2011 study released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)  reported that among adults aged 50 to 59, the rate of illicit drug use increased from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 6.3 percent in 2011.  Even more difficult for some to grasp was that the most commonly abused drugs were opiates, cocaine and marijuana.

Detecting Drug and Alcohol Abuse In Seniors

Preventing, diagnosing and detecting drug and alcohol abuse problems in seniors has it’s own set of unique challenges. Many physicians and health professionals do not thinking about seniors being at risk for substance abuse problems. They do not screen or ask questions related to illicit drug or alcohol abuse. Other challenges unique to seniors include the recognition that even modest drug and alcohol use can lead to addiction. Many seniors have difficulty metabolizing drugs and alcohol, and may already be experiencing cognitive impairments common with aging. this can make reporting and monitoring unreliable, especially if a person has been using drugs or alcohol for years.

Many seniors are also at higher-risk for developing depression, especially as loved ones pass away. Typically this can lead to loneliness or isolation, common risk factors for drug and alcohol abuse. Many seniors do not recognize that four or five drinks in one evening is defined as binge drinking in the general population and so may not report their habits appropriately. In fact, for seniors (those over 65), the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends no more than three drinks in a day or seven drinks in a week.

Understanding the Why
People over 65 are rarely suffering from drug and alcohol abuse because they want to get “high”. Seniors who suffer from addiction may have started using as teenagers or in their 20s, but often have stopped using as they aged. Others may turn to alcohol and drugs for the first time to help them alleviate the emotional difficulties of aging, such as depression and anxiety or to alleviate physical pain associated with physical illness.