A Silent Epidemic – Drug and Alcohol Misuse or Abuse Among Aging Adults
April 27, 2016


Drug and Alcohol Misuse or Abuse Among Aging Adults

When people think about drug and alcohol abuse, often times the idea of a teenager or young adult in their 20’s comes to mind. A silent epidemic not often discussed is drug misuse and abuse among aging adults and the elderly. Addiction to prescription drugs or alcohol are substance abuse issues that are seen among aging adults.

Substance abuse and misuse does not look the same among aging adults as it does among young adults. Arrests for possession of illegal drugs, public intoxication, driving while intoxicated or domestic violence while under the influence are common problems among younger adults suffering from addiction. With aging adults and the elderly, substance abuse does not have a similar appearance and can be more difficult to detect in public and as a result typically don’t result in arrests.

It is reported that there is a growing problem involving misuse of prescription and over the counter drugs, especially sleep aids and painkillers. Aging and elderly patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term prescriptions or multiple prescriptions. Some patients experience cognitive decline while taking prescriptions which leads to improper use of prescription medications.

What is the difference between ‘Abuse’ and ‘Misuse’?

shutterstock_92244037 It is important to understand the difference between the terms ‘abuse’ and ‘misuse.’ Drug misuse is common among seniors, whereas drug abuse is less prevalent among the older population. A majority of the seniors who become dependent on prescription drugs are being treated for legitimate medical issues including anxiety, depression, pain or insomnia. As they continue use of the prescribed medications, they may increase their dosage to seek greater relief, resulting in misuse.

The less common of the two among seniors is drug abuse, which is still to be considered an issue. Abuse involves the willful and repetitive habit of taking drugs for pleasure as opposed to the repeated use of drugs for therapeutic purposes.

What you should know about drug and alcohol misuse and abuse in aging adults.

Statistics for substance abuse for aging and the elderly is difficult to gather since these ages range depending on each study’s definition of “older adult” and the definitions of the terms “substance abuse” and “misuse” differ greatly as well. With that being said, we do know that there is a significant portion of older and elderly adults with substance use problems, although most do not. It is estimated that approximately 20-25% of older adults have substance abuse problems.

Prescription drug abuse is said to be present in 12-15% of elderly individuals who seek medical attention. Furthermore, a document from the Johns Hopkins Medical School stated that the number of Americans over the age of 50 abusing prescription drugs is projected to rise to 2.7 million in 2020, resulting in a 190% increase from 910,000 in 2001.

opioid addiction epidemicMisuse and abuse becomes more dangerous with age due to a slowed metabolism and medical conditions which may be exacerbate by use of alcohol and other drugs. The use of drugs and alcohol, even in small amounts, can increase the likelihood of falls, which are a major cause of disability and premature death in older adults.

While it is known that people with addictions to alcohol, cocaine, and heroin or other opiates have a lower than average life expectancy, some do survive into old age.

Substance abuse and misuse by older adults will often go unnoticed by friends, family and relatives. Often primary care practitioners and other service providers will not notice the signs of abuse in older adults. This reflects the stereotype that older adults don’t misuse alcohol or drugs.

While signs of substance abuse are increasingly difficult to identify and distinguish from changes experienced as people age, it is still important to watch for these changes, including:

Asking questions about use of illegal substances, drinking habits, and use of prescription and over-the-counter drugs are among the best ways to ensure that your loved one is not misusing or abusing drugs or alcohol.

If you are concerned that a loved one is suffering from alcohol or drug abuse, please do not hesitate to call A New Start today at (561) 571-8849.

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