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Substance Misuse and Addiction in Older Adults

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Substance use disorders in older Americans are steadily increasing. So are drug and alcohol-related deaths in the same age group. Substance misuse or addiction in older adults is often unrecognized. Sometimes a senior citizen may have a behavioral or medical condition that makes it hard to recognize the signs of addiction.

Accurate Information on Substance Misuse and Addiction 

It is very difficult to know how many people ages 60 and older have substance use disorders. Many seniors hide their drug or alcohol use from family, friends, and medical professionals because they feel it is a personal matter or feel ashamed of their drug or alcohol use. Even if signs of substance use, such as balance problems or diminished cognitive functions, are noticed, they are often brushed aside as signs of aging. Sometimes family members are aware of their loved one’s substance use and justify it because of the person’s age or lack of social interaction.

Why are the Numbers Increasing?

  • As people age, they face many changes in their lives. Big changes, such as the loss of a loved one, retirement, financial worries, or family conflicts, cause stress and anxiety. Some people turn to alcohol or drugs for relief.
  • Older adults often live alone and deal with loneliness and isolation.
  • Many older people have an increase in body aches and pains and need pain relief. If they are prescribed opioid medications, they have a high risk of developing an addiction.
  • Some seniors drink alcohol or use drugs to fill their time or stop worrying.
  • Today’s seniors are the baby boomer generation. They grew up in a time when many people had a more permissive stance toward drug and alcohol use, and they may not fully understand how addiction develops or its consequences.

Substances Commonly Abused by Older Adults

The most commonly misused substance is alcohol. It is legal, inexpensive, and easy to buy. However, misuse of the following substances is also on the rise.

  • Opioids: Many synthetic opioids are prescribed for chronic or severe pain. Opioids, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet and OxyContin), morphine, codeine, and fentanyl are highly addictive. When prescription medications are no longer available from their doctors, people resort to other means of satisfying their need for pain relief.
  • Heroin: A natural opioid, heroin is an illegal substance. Sometimes people with addictions to prescription opioids turn to heroin when they are not able to get more prescription drugs.
  • Marijuana: Marijuana is legal in many states. Many older adults have medical marijuana prescriptions to relieve medical conditions. It can be easy to overuse marijuana and potentially develop dependence on it.
  • Benzodiazepines: Benzos are prescription medications like Xanax or Ativan prescribed to relieve anxiety, depression, muscle spasms, insomnia, or seizures. These drugs can be addictive when they are misused.
  • Cocaine: Cocaine is not a drug that was popular with previous generations of older adults, but its use is on the rise among baby boomers. Cocaine is highly addictive.

Startling Statistics on Substance Misuse and Addiction in Older Adults

The American Psychiatric Association published a 2022 report that stated deaths from drugs doubled among people 65 years and older between 2008-2010 and 2018-2020. The University of Pennsylvania Health System provides the following statistics regarding older adults:

  1. 2.5 million older adults struggle with drug or alcohol abuse or addiction.
  2. Hospitalization rates for older adults for heart attacks are the same as for alcohol-related problems.
  3. Benzodiazepines are the most misused prescription medications.
  4. Each year older adults are prescribed 17 million tranquilizer prescriptions.
  5. Drug or alcohol problems account for six to eleven percent of hospital admissions of elderly people.
  6. Almost 50 percent of people living in nursing homes have alcohol use disorders.
  7. In the United States, the highest rate of alcoholism is among widowers 75 years of age or older.

It is Never too Late to Get the Help You Need 

Older adults may feel too ashamed or embarrassed to seek help for their drug or alcohol addiction. Others may consider it too late to change. But it is never too late, and regardless of age, help is available. The caring professional staff at Canyon Vista Recovery Center in Mesa, Arizona, welcomes clients of all ages. At Canyon Vista, you will receive treatment that addresses all aspects of your recovery using traditional and holistic therapies.

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