• The Elderly Population & Addiction: How Addiction Affects The Elderly & Older Adults

The Elderly Population & Addiction: How Addiction Affects The Elderly & Older Adults

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Substance use disorder (SUD) among the elderly is a growing concern in the United States. If you feel that you, a spouse, parent, or friend may be struggling with substance use, you’re not alone. With age comes experience, wisdom, and joy. However, it can also bring along a new set of challenges. Illness, changes in the body, mental health issues, and life changing events can cause emotional distress and contribute to problems with drugs and alcohol.

According to Today’s Geriatric Medicine, 8 million older adults exhibit symptoms of substance use disorder, and according to the University of Pennsylvania, six to eleven percent of elderly hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or other drug problems. The number of Americans aged 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 52 million in 2018 to 95 million by 2060, which will result in higher numbers of elderly and older adults who experience issues with substance use.

What Substance Use Looks Like in The Elderly and Older Adults

Symptoms of addiction and substance use disorder in the elderly can be hard to spot. This is especially so because symptoms can mimic other physical or psychological issues such as depression, aging, or diabetes. Some symptoms may include:

  • Confusion or agitation
  • Anger or withdrawal
  • Taking more of a prescription than prescribed
  • Hoarding pills, medications, or other substances
  • Appear forgetful
  • Increased falls or injuries
  • Health complaints with no cause
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating patterns
  • Having been treated for drug or alcohol misuse in the past

Drugs of Choice within The Elderly Population


As the body gets older, it metabolizes alcohol differently, leading to greater effects with smaller amounts of alcohol. According to the University of Pennsylvania, nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol related problems. In addition, older adults are hospitalized as often for alcoholic related problems as heart attacks. 

Prescription Medications

Older adults and seniors can become unknowingly or unintentionally dependent on prescription medications which can lead to increased health complications. Some may also knowingly misuse medications from a doctor or take medications that were not prescribed. Over prescription of medications by providers can increase the risk of misuse. Taking medication as prescribed, including opioid pain medication, does not mean someone will develop a substance use disorder, even if the medication is taken regularly, however the risk can increase. If there are concerns about quantities or dosage of opioid or other medications it is important to address these with the prescriber.

Addiction Risk Factors for Elderly and Older Adults

There are a number of factors that can increase risk of substance use disorder in the elderly and older adults. These can include the following:


Retirement can sound wonderful. However, transitioning from a busy work week to unfilled and unplanned days can be an overwhelming change. The impact of these circumstances can contribute to feelings of purposelessness, depression, boredom, and create financial strain. This sudden lifestyle change can lead individuals to turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

Mixing Medications

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 80 percent of older patients (aged 57 to 85 years) use at least one prescription medication on a daily basis, with more than 50 percent taking more than five medications or supplements daily. This can increase risk of medication mismanagement, and also create potential for misuse of prescriptions.

Chronic Pain

As a result of chronic pain, older adults may have used prescription opioids for a long time, which creates a higher risk for developing opioid use disorder. As people get older, medications can affect the body more strongly and the side effects of opioids can become more pronounced. Regular use of prescribed opioid medication does not necessarily mean someone will develop a substance use disorder, however the risk does increase. It is possible to be physically dependent on a substance without meeting criteria for a substance use disorder. Talking to a prescriber or licensed therapist with expertise in substance use treatment can be helpful in assessing potential problems.

Declining Health and Isolation

As individuals age, their deteriorating physical and mental health can create instances of increased isolation. Impaired vision may keep them from driving and medical issues may keep them from being mobile. In addition, other problems such as dementia and Parkinson’s Disease can contribute to feelings of helplessness. Increased sense of social isolation often leads to feelings of loneliness, which can contribute to using substances as a way of coping.

Mental Health

According to the Centers of Disease Control (CDC), 20% of individuals 55 years and older experience a mental health concern. Circumstances around these issues can include unexpected life changes. Losing a loved one, or surviving traumatic experiences such as elderly abuse by an individual or caregiver can trigger symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or depression.

Elderly Addiction Treatment & Getting Help

Getting help for substance use disorder at any age is crucial to sustaining health and living a long life. There are numerous ways to receive help if you are an elderly or older adult. It’s important to remember that  addiction is a progressive and fatal disease and not something that can be treated overnight. According to the Geriatric Mental Health Foundation, older adults respond better to treatment for substance abuse than younger adults. There are numerous treatment options specific to older individuals. If you or a loved one are elderly and believe you may be suffering from substance use disorder, recovery is possible.

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Addiction Resources for The Elderly & Older Adults

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