Is an addict a teenager using heroin? Or a young adult drinking excessive amounts of alcohol? Recent studies challenge these assumptions. 20 to 30 percent of adults between 75 and 85 years of age have had problems with alcohol consumption, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also found that 3.6 percent of 60- to 64-year-olds have used illegal drugs. Between 2006 and 2012, the number of older adults who sought emergency treatment for improper drug use jumped to 78 percent.
Substance abuse can exacerbate other pre-existing conditions, including dementia, which in turn could lead seniors to use too much or too little of their prescriptions or forget to take them entirely. Confusion could also prompt people to mix substances and prescription drugs, which can produce dangerous results. Additionally, ageing bodies do not process alcohol and drugs the same way that younger bodies do. Seniors could become drunk, high, or impaired faster than younger people who consume the same amount of intoxicants. This could lead to a greater risk of health problems, injuries such as falls, and addiction.
There are many different reasons why older adults become substance-dependent. Many seniors use alcohol or drugs to cope with life changes such as divorce, retirement, or death of a loved one. For others it is a residual habit from when they were younger; adults who experimented with substances in the past could continue to use drugs and alcohol for recreational purposes, without realizing the risk of addiction increases with age. The long-term use of pain medication to treat other conditions is also likely to turn into a substance addiction if not monitored carefully.
Fortunately, the recognition of this issue brings a plethora of rehabilitation solutions specifically catering to older adults. Seniors can now pursue addiction treatment in the company of their peers. In fact there are rehab programs and facilities especially for older adults, including programs that provide alternative medications as they wean patients off prescription painkillers. Some doctors recommend alternating prescription and nonprescription drugs to treat pain.
Acknowledging addictive behaviors and substance abuse among seniors is the first step to recovery. As these issues garner national attention, society is likely to see the development of more and more innovative solutions to help prevent seniors from becoming unduly addicted to harmful substances.
Pam Zuber is an editor and writer on many topics such as addiction, recovery, biology and psychology. She is particularly interested in topics that relate to achieving and maintaining good health. Zuber has written for various treatment centers including Elite Rehab Placement, Monarch Shores and Willow Springs Recovery.