Substance Use Disorders Skyrocketing Among Older Adults

Substance Use Disorders Skyrocketing Among Older Adults

Deaths from drug and alcohol use are rising among America’s seniors. Drug overdose deaths more than tripled among adults 65 and older during the past two decades and deaths from alcohol abuse increased by more than 18% from 2019 to 2020 among seniors, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics. 

Substance use disorders (SUD) are typically not what comes to mind when people think of older adults but Alexis Kuerbis, an expert on substance use among older adults says that it’s time we change our mindset. “We’ve got a public health problem coming at our door — these trends have been increasing for a long time now,” said Kuerbis, Let’s look at some of the reasons why SUDs are increasing among the elderly and how it can impact their health.

Helping Elderly Family Members with Addiction Infographic Fort Wayne Recovery


of adults 65 and older report taking at least one prescription

When Pain Management Turns to Addiction

A lot of elderly Americans struggle with chronic pain from old age, injuries, terminal illness and autoimmune diseases and 89% of adults 65 and older report taking at least one prescription. The problem starts when they start to abuse these substances by taking more than the recommended dosage.

The problem starts when they start to abuse these substances by taking more than the recommended dosage. More than 800,000 seniors suffered from drug addiction in 2020. “Seniors have a higher chance of mixing, overusing, or abusing their medication,” says Chaye McIntosh, the New Jersey-based clinical director of outpatient services at ChoicePoint. “This [tendency] could be due to age-associated dementia, lack of proper care, or personal neglect.” McIntosh says that some older adults might also combine their medication with alcohol, “which can enhance their effects and pave the way for addiction.”

Over 30% of adults over 65 also report experiencing chronic pain and being prescribed opioids. Seniors who struggle to afford their prescriptions or have trouble accessing pain medications due to strict state opioid laws may seek out alternatives such as prescription medications from other countries or street drugs. When medications aren’t regulated, they can contain much more dangerous substances in them such as fentanyl. Deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids increased 53% among seniors from 2019 to 2020, Kuebix said there’s also some evidence to suggest people who were prescribed opioids in their middle age for an injury later switched to fentanyl once it became harder to get a prescription. Seniors also run an increased risk of having a negative reaction when they receive prescriptions from multiple doctors and could unknowingly combine medications that don’t interact well with each other. 

To help prevent addiction to opioids from occurring in the elderly, it’s important for family members and caregivers to continuously monitor their prescription drug usage to ensure they aren’t unintentionally misusing their medications. They should also make sure their loved one’s primary care physician has a complete list of all of their medications including over-the-counter medications and supplements. They should also look into medication assistance programs if their elderly relative is struggling to pay for their prescriptions so they don’t seek out alternative ways to access their medication which can put both their safety and health at significant risk.

Using Alcohol to Cope with Change

Alcohol has become the most commonly abused substance among older adults. Retirement, loss of a spouse, financial concerns and chronic health problems are all common things for seniors to face anxiety over and to cope with these changes, 2.7 million seniors admitted to struggling with alcohol addiction in 2022,  In a separate study, the NIDA reports that about 65% of adults 65 or older report engaging in binge drinking. 

“As individuals get older, they begin to lose what had previously been big parts of their identity and purpose,” says Joseph Gorordo, a licensed chemical dependency counselor. “Children grow up and become self-sufficient. Careers that took up so much time and contributed so much structure end. Social supports, such as friends and family [members], begin to pass away.”

It may be difficult to tell if an elderly family member is struggling with alcohol use disorder as many symptoms are similar to other common issues caused by the aging process including unexplained injuries, mobility issues and sudden mood swings. Caregivers need to keep an eye out for any changes in behavior patterns and signs like empty liquor bottles or frequent cash withdrawals.

The Impact of Drugs and Alcohol on Seniors

As people age, drugs and alcohol can cause stronger side effects and stay in their bodies longer since older adults tend to metabolize substances at a slower rate. For this reason, they are more likely to experience behavioral health issues, lung and heart problems and memory lapses due to substance abuse. Over time, ongoing substance use can worsen preexisting health conditions and accelerate the aging process in the elderly.  

“Addiction in [older adults] is concerning for the same reasons that addiction is concerning with anyone,” says Gorordo, “It leads to a deteriorating quality of life that can cause a whole host of physical and social problems up to—and including—premature death.”

“As individuals get older, they begin to lose what had previously been big parts of their identity and purpose.”

Joseph Gorordo, a licensed chemical dependency counselor

It can be difficult to determine if a family member or patient is struggling with addiction since many of the symptoms are similar to normal age-related behaviors and conditions.  Physicians and addiction specialists have asked for more research to be done to develop targeted SUD screening methods for the elderly. 

Until then, family members and caregivers need to keep an open dialogue with their loved ones and ask them questions in a non-judgmental tone about their current substance use. They can encourage them to keep track of how much they drink each week and their ongoing medication usage. They should also encourage them to receive treatment for their addiction as soon as possible and let them know what options are available to them. They may benefit from a medical detox or rehabilitation treatment facility where they can be monitored by healthcare professionals and receive mental health support to help them cope with all the changes that come with the aging process while treating their addiction. Family members can let them know that it’s never too late to get help and recovery from a substance use disorder can improve their quality of life and overall future health.