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Many people consider substance abuse and addiction a problem that affects the young, not senior citizens. Sadly, that is not the case. Addiction is a treatable, chronic brain disease. It can affect anyone regardless of their age. Drug and alcohol addiction among older people is a growing health problem in the United States.
The Growing Invisible Epidemic
According to the New York Times, two percent of senior citizens (900,000) receiving Medicare benefits reported having a drug or alcohol dependence or addiction in the past year.
- Of those seniors, more than 87 percent reported alcohol was their drug of choice.
- Approximately 8.6 percent of substance use disorders involved prescription pain relievers and other opioids.
- Marijuana was involved in 4.3 percent of substance use disorders.
- Two percent of the seniors were addicted to non-opioid prescription drugs, such as anti-anxiety medications and tranquilizers.
- Alcohol-related deaths among this age group rose 18 percent from 2019 to 2020, with 11,616 deaths in 2020.
As Baby Boomers reach retirement age, it is expected the numbers will continue to increase.
A Difficult Problem to Detect
We know the number of seniors with drug or alcohol addiction is on the rise, but it is impossible to know the actual number of seniors struggling with substance use disorders. The signs of addiction in seniors are often mistaken for a different medical condition or overlooked by medical professionals, family, and friends. Many symptoms of addiction are the same as age-related conditions and medical or behavioral disorders, such as frailty, anxiety, depression, diabetes, heart disease, and dementia. Medical appointments are often hurried, and older patients may not tell their physicians about their alcohol or drug use.
Many older people do not work, making it easier to hide their drinking or drug use. They may think it is a personal issue or feel embarrassed or ashamed. Sometimes, family members or friends may be aware of the problem and ignore or justify it. For example, they may say, “He doesn’t drive anymore, so there is no harm in his drinking” or, “She’s old, and if it makes her happy, she should be allowed to do it.”
Aging Increases Vulnerability to Drugs and Alcohol
Most Baby Boomers are in their senior years. They are the generations that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s when drugs were more accepted and prevalent. Some of today’s seniors still hold their generational beliefs and attitudes toward drugs and have been using them since their early years. But as their bodies and brains age, they metabolize substances slower than when they were young. Older brains are more sensitive to substances, making them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of the drugs.
For senior citizens, the health risks generally associated with drug or alcohol addiction are more harmful and can worsen pre-existing conditions. Substance use disorders in older adults can exacerbate health problems, such as lung and heart problems, mood disorders, immune system disorders, liver and pancreas diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, memory issues, seizures, and stroke.
Hardy Survivor and Late Onset: Two Classifications
Seniors with drug and alcohol addiction fall into two classifications: hardy survivors and late-onset.
- Hardy survivors are people aged 65 and over who have been abusing substances for many years. They have generally gone through severe consequences of addiction, such as financial or legal issues, family or relationship problems, or cognitive or medical issues. More males than females are hardy survivors.
- Late-onset are seniors who become addicted to drugs or alcohol later in life. People classified as late-onset generally experience a catastrophic life event, a series of major life changes, or health-related issues causing them to lose control and misuse alcohol or drugs to cope. More females than males are late-onset.
Causes of Late-onset Addiction
Specifically, late-onset addiction can be caused by the loss of a spouse or loved one, illnesses, major surgeries, retirement, or loss of employment.
Other causes of late-onset addiction include:
- Death of a family pet or close friend
- Divorce, separation, conflicts within the family
- Relocation to a new home
- Placement in a nursing home or assisted living facility
- Difficulty sleeping, changes in sleep patterns
You Can Regain Control of Your Life
It is never too late to get the help you need for drug or alcohol addiction. If you or a loved one struggles with a substance use disorder, we can help. Located in Mesa, Arizona, the caring professionals at Canyon Vista Recovery Center will help you regain control of your life. Now is the time to take the first step toward recovery. Contact us today.