What Drug is Most Commonly Abused by Older Adults?

Whether it’s problem drinking or the misuse of prescription medication, substance use is a significant problem for older adults – in fact, it is one of the fastest growing health issues in the United States. This pattern of behavior often goes unchecked because people are unlikely to confront older relatives about their drinking or drug use. Today, we’ll analyze substance use in the elderly, answering the question: What drug is most commonly abused by older adults?

Substance Use and Older Adults: The Statistics

While illicit drug use is normally associated with risk-taking young people, research shows that more than one million Americans over the age of 65 have a substance use disorder. According to SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, alcohol remains the most common drug of misuse. Their research demonstrated that 978,000 older adults had an alcohol use disorder, while 161,000 could be diagnosed with an illicit drug use disorder.
Combined data from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH 2007-2014) indicate that during the past month, six million older adults drank alcohol, 132,000 used marijuana, and 4,300 used cocaine. On an average day in 2011, there were over 2,000 drug-related emergency room visits for older adults; of these, 290 involved illegal drug use, use of alcohol combined with other drugs, or nonmedical use of pharmaceuticals.
These numbers are staggering, and experts warn that they will grow. They warn that the baby boomer generation faces relatively higher drug use rates compared with previous generations. This cohort will experience the negative consequences of substance use, which include legal trouble, incarceration, physical and mental health issues, social and family problems, and potential death from overdose.
The dangers are known, and researchers must ask: If their risk is lower, how do older people become addicted to drugs and alcohol?

How and Why Do Older People Become Addicted?

The Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services divides older adult substance abuse into two discrete categories: individuals who have used substances for many years, and those who formed addictions later in life. People in each of these groups face different obstacles that create a perfect storm in which addiction can form.
Individuals who began misusing drugs and alcohol earlier in life probably did so as a result of environmental conditioning, genetic predisposition, or as an attempt at self-medication. As one uses substances over time, they develop a tolerance; as such, they require more and more of the drug or drink to achieve the same effect. Because addiction is a progressive, chronic disease, it is possible for someone to begin using drugs or alcohol recreationally, only to find themselves dependent on that substance in the long run.
Older adults who begin drinking or using later in life may be triggered into this pattern of behavior. Individuals who are diagnosed with an illness, dealing with chronic pain, severely injured, or coping with mental illness may find themselves struggling to get by. Older people go through a lot of transitions in their age – they retire, friends and family members pass away, or they may be relocated to an assisted living facility. These troubling instances can serve as a catalyst to substance abuse.
Finally, older adults who are prescribed highly addictive medications may struggle to adhere to label instructions. Even when used under the supervision of a medical professional, ongoing use of opioid pain relievers can result in chemical dependency.
No matter how an older adult finds themselves addicted to drugs or alcohol, it is vital to identify that they have a problem as soon as possible.

Signs of Addiction

It can be challenging to identify substance abuse in older adults. As we age, our health deteriorates. Because of this, health care providers may overlook the signs of addiction entirely. Its symptoms can overlap with the effects of medical or behavioral disorders like depression, dementia, or diabetes.
Signs of addiction in older adults include…
  • Changes to eating and sleeping habits
  • Unexplained injuries or chronic pain
  • Irritability or depression
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering
  • Becoming isolated and secretive
  • Experiencing financial difficulty
  • Worsened personal hygiene

If you believe that a senior citizen in your life has developed an addiction, it is vital to seek treatment as soon as possible.

Treatment for Older Adults

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that older adult treatment plans involve age-specific programming, a focus on coping with depression and loss, a pace appropriate for older individuals, staff members who are experienced in working with this population, linkages with other supportive services, and a focus on rebuilding one’s social network. We provide these services and more at our well-appointed, single-floor facility. At HVRC, we have created a track specifically tailored to the needs of older adults.
To learn more about our age-specific addiction treatment services, contact HVRC today.