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Older Adults and Substance Abuse


Older Adults and Substance Abuse

When it comes to substance abuse and addiction, older adults represent an underserved part of the population. Contrary to popular belief, the older you get does not actually reduce the risk for substance abuse. In actuality, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rates of hazardous alcohol and drug use and dependence among people aged 50 and older will continue to increase through the year 2020. Additionally, the study indicates that between the years of 2008 and 2013, baby-boomers aged 50–54 had the highest rates of illicit drug use and reported inappropriate use of prescription drugs such as benzodiazepines and opioid analgesics. These statistics stem from individuals sharing pain medications, using higher doses of painkillers for extended periods than prescribed, and even using Benzodiazepines and Opioids for recreational purposes.

Risk Factors

Many factors place older adults at a higher risk for problematic substance use, especially a prior history that may lead to continued misuse of illicit and prescription drugs. Other risk factors include life stressors, problems associated with life stage, managing mental illness, or a general lack of awareness. 

Specifically, this might look like: 

• Early retirement (whether forced or elected)
Death of a spouse or family member or divorce
• Sudden or chronic illness at an older age
• Loss of independent living
• Lack of social support system leading to isolation
• Financial pressure
• Empty nest syndrome
• History of mental illness
• Co-occurring psychological or physical health conditions
• Or a general lack of awareness about the dangers of substance misuse and the potential to abuse pills as prescribed by a doctor

The Concerns of Old Age

While substance abuse among older adults may not be as pronounced as it is in younger individuals, frequent and heavy misuse of alcohol, over-the-counter medication (OTC) and prescription painkillers pose a serious threat to individuals’ health and emotional well-being. 

Old age comes with it various health conditions such as chronic bodily pains, weight gain or loss, severe sleep disturbances, and mental health issues ranging from stress, anxiety, and depression. This is precisely why drugs such as antianxiety agents like benzodiazepines and narcotics like opioid analgesics are being prescribed to older patients in alarmingly high numbers, primarily by non-psychiatrists, at the protest of the American Geriatrics Society and other psychiatry organizations.  

A 2014 study by the U.S National Institutes of Health reveals that 9% of individuals between the age of 65–80 had recently received a benzodiazepine prescription, 31% of whom received prescription opioids for long-term use, despite the knowledge that the length of the prescription is highly correlated for increased incidences of misuse. A separate study found that some individuals received their first prescription for a benzodiazepine or sedative at age 78, well beyond the recommended age, and what’s more, were found to be staying on these medications long-term. In fact, in a UK study, of the percentage of older adults prescribed long-term benzodiazepines, it was found that 27% had taken benzodiazepines for more than 20 years, and 60% had taken the drugs continuously for more than 10 years. Not only do these drugs such as Valium and Xanax pose a risk for addiction, but they also pose potential hazards in older adults impairing cognition, mobility, and driving skills, as well as increasing the risk of falls and bodily harm.

Abuse of prescription opioids such as morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone among older adults aged 65 and older is on the rise and projected to worsen in the coming years if nothing is done about it. There is a growing need for residential and outpatient addiction treatment programs for older adults that addresses the various emotional, physiological, and physical facets of aging. And just as with their younger counterparts, the road to recovery begins with detox. Talk to a recovery specialist today to learn how MD Home Detox can help you!

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