While it may seem that substance abuse is isolated to a younger crowd, dependence is prevalent in all communities.
In fact, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than one million people 65 and older were reported to have a substance use disorder in 2014. The majority of those, some 978,000, were dependent on alcohol.
Although substance abuse tends to decrease as people age, the number of senior citizens dealing with addiction is expected to increase from 2.2 to 3.1 percent by 2020.
Breakdown of Substances Most Commonly Used
According to a study reported by Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) in 2012, of the 65 or older individuals who entered treatment on an average day:
- 29 abused alcohol
- 6 abused heroin or other opiates
- 2 abused cocaine
- 1 abused marijuana
- 1 abused other drugs
Admissions to substance abuse treatment aged 65 or older were referred primarily by the following sources:
- 17 by self-referral or referral from other individuals
- 10 by the criminal justice system
- 5 by other healthcare providers
- 4 by community organizations
- 3 by alcohol or drug abuse care providers or other referrals
Common Factors Leading to Addiction in Seniors
Substance abuse in seniors is commonly overlooked due to other health conditions or possible misdiagnosis.
Some common factors that lead to misuse or abuse of alcohol or drugs include:
- Death of a family member, spouse, pet, or close friend
- Loss of income or financial strains
- Relocation or placement in a nursing home
- Trouble sleeping
- Family conflict
- Symptoms of mental or physical health decline such as depression or memory loss
- No longer being able to engage in once-loved physical activities
Signs of Addiction in Seniors
The symptoms of drug dependence in seniors are different from younger individuals. Because of this, addiction is often overlooked in older people.
Some symptoms to look out for, as suggested by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), include:
- Secretive drinking
- Increased isolation or solitary drinking
- Chronic drinking before, with, or after dinner
- Loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities
- Drinking while using prescription drugs
- Frequent use of tranquilizers
- Slurred speech
- Empty liquor and beer bottles
- Frequent smell of alcohol on breath
- Change in personal appearance
- Chronic and/or unsupported health complaints
- Hostility or depression
- Memory loss and confusion
What Is Considered Moderate Drinking?
How many drinks are too many? Moderate drinking, according to the dietary guidelines noted by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, is up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men. Men are allotted more alcohol because of the difference in the way alcohol is metabolized between men and women.
Research suggests that because of biological differences, women are more vulnerable to not only the immediate effects of alcohol, but also the long-term consequences of organ damage. In short, a man and woman who consume equivalent amounts of alcohol will achieve different results. With less water in the body, the woman will become impaired quicker. In the long-term, women are more vulnerable to developing alcohol-related diseases, such as cirrhosis, in shorter amounts of time.
NIAAA’s Definition of Low Risk Drinking
Drinking that is considered at low risk for developing an alcohol use disorder is defined as no more than three drinks in one occasion and fewer than seven drinks per week for women. For men, NIAAA suggests no more than four drinks per sitting and fewer than 14 drinks per week.
Prescription Drug Use
Individuals aged 65 and older only comprise 13 percent of the population, but account for more than 30 percent of people prescribed prescription drugs according to the NCADD. This puts them at considerable risk for developing a dependence on prescription drugs.
In addition, because of changes in the body, elderly age increases the chance of suffering from adverse effects of medications. Experiencing the adverse effects of drug interactions makes seniors at considerable risk of suffering from dangerous outcomes as well as alcohol or drug-related injuries.
Alarming Statistics Published by the NCADD
A NCADD report found:
- About 2.5 million older adults suffer from an alcohol or drug problem.
- Approximately 6 to 11 percent of elderly hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems.
- In the United States, widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism.
- Nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents suffer from alcohol-related problems.
- Hospital visits for alcohol related issues are as common as heart attacks.
- Annually, some 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are prescribed for older adults.
- Benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizing drug, are the most commonly misused and abused prescription medications.
How to Help
It’s important to remember that you need not address this issue alone. Part of the problem can often be a lack of awareness in the individual suffering, as addiction can often be conflated with partying and illegal activity. Seniors who are struggling with addiction often appear to be high functioning to the casual observer.
Support groups can help educate and build community for elderly, especially those who are living alone. This can help initiate a pathway toward living a life away without substance substances.
Therapy can also be beneficial, helping the individual identify the source of the problem and guiding them toward a solution. Valley Recovery offers both inpatient and outpatient treatment programs for men and women of all ages.