Guide to Addiction Prevention for Seniors

By on July 6, 2015

By Jasmine Dyoco–

When discussing substance abuse and addiction, most people think about teenagers and young adults. Much public education is devoted to addiction prevention beginning in the elementary years, as evidence has shown that early education and intervention reduces the likelihood that children will experiment with drugs. Most people would be surprised to learn that substance abuse and addiction is actually a growing problem among senior citizens.

This guide contains more than 50 valuable resources from high-quality sources such as government and education sites, leading professional journals, organizations devoted to substance abuse and addiction awareness and treatment, and other informative and reputable sources.


Lack of Adequate Training for Substance Abuse and Addiction in Seniors

Because of this widespread misconception, most caregivers and family members of the elderly don’t even consider substance abuse as a possibility. But it’s actually a problem that’s likely to become even more prevalent in the coming years. According to a report from the Institute of Medicine, however, “Current education and training for most health care providers do not cover the skills and competencies necessary to provide adequate care for older adults who need MH/SU care.” In other words, we’re unprepared.

Richard A. Friedman, M.D., explains in an article for The New Old Age Blog that this trend shouldn’t be surprising when considered in the broader context of our aging society. The Baby Boomers, currently entering their senior years, grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s, making them far more likely to have experimented with illicit drugs than the generations before them.

Substance Abuse and Addiction are Already Common in the Elderly

Substance abuse and mental health disorders aren’t exactly uncommon among the elderly population as it is. Data from 2010 suggests that between 14 and 20 percent of the elderly population have one or more substance abuse or mental health disorders, which equates to approximately 6 to 8 million older Americans.

In 2010, there were 40 million Americans age 65 and older, a number which is expected to increase to 73 million by 2030. Additionally, Friedman points out that the rates of illicit drug use among adults aged 50 to 59 increased from 2.7 percent to 6.3 percent between 2002 and 2011, according to research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

addiction preventionSubstance Abuse is Often Overlooked in the Senior Population

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Substance abuse and addiction exist in the elderly population, but it’s not something family members, caregivers, physicians and other people typically think about. If they do think about it, they may not be comfortable asking about it.

In older adults, even moderate substance abuse can be dangerous. Older people often metabolize foods and substances at different rates, making it easier to accumulate dangerously high concentrations of drugs and alcohol. The brain may handle substances differently in older age than it did in a person’s 20’s or 30’s.

Substance Abuse is More Dangerous for Seniors

Abusing drugs or alcohol is dangerous for an individual at any age, but the elderly population is at greater risk for certain complications and adverse events due to physiological changes that occur with aging. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), the elderly, cachectic or debilitated patients are more likely to experience respiratory depression and constipation.

Potential risks of drug or alcohol abuse and/or addiction for seniors:

  • Increased sensitivity or decreased tolerance (less substance produces stronger effect)
  • Higher blood concentrations due to slow metabolism
  • Risk of accidents, falls or injuries
  • Excessive daytime drowsiness
  • Disorientation or delirium
  • Significant memory problems
  • Slowed respiration
  • Worsening liver disease, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes
  • Sleep disruptions or disorders
  • Ulcers and gastrointestinal problems
  • Adverse drug interactions resulting in seizure, coma or death

Family members may notice warning signs but brush them off as typical symptoms of aging. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the potential for drug abuse in the senior population and pay close attention to potential warning signs.

Some warning signs of substance abuse in the elderly include:pink-pills

  • Weight loss and/or decreased appetite
  • Memory loss
  • Agitation or irritability; short temper not typical of the individual
  • Mood swings, unusual sadness or depression
  • Sudden increase in anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating or paying attention
  • Complaints of insomnia
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Hiding or lying about drinking habits
  • Signs of withdrawal, such as tremors
  • Hiding alcohol or pills
  • Forgetfulness or blackouts
  • Social withdrawal; lack of desire to participate in usually enjoyable activities
  • Discomfort or embarrassment when asked about substance use

With more research illustrating the prevalence of substance abuse among senior citizens and the effectiveness of targeted treatment options, there is hope for families of aging loved ones concerned for their elderly loved one’s health and safety. Caregivers should be aware of the risk factors and potential warning signs to address suspected substance abuse as soon as it’s recognized, so that treatment interventions can be discussed with clinicians as soon as possible.

Originally posted on New Beginnings.

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Guide to Addiction Prevention for Seniors