Anyone can become addicted to drugs or alcohol at any age, but many people guess that substance use disorders affect only the young: individuals who are prone to dangerous decisions and lack the retrospective wisdom that comes with age. However, addiction does not stem from a moral failing, and doesn’t discriminate based on social standing, gender or age. Drug and alcohol addiction can impact anyone at any stage in life, and although it is seldom front-page news, addiction among the elderly is a growing issue in America.

To better understand the public view of senior addiction, The Recovery Village surveyed approximately 400 people across the United States, asking about their opinions of and knowledge about drug use among the elderly. Their answers confirmed that most people know the types of substances that the elderly regularly use, but the public is greatly unaware of the reality of addiction among older adults.  

Addiction Affects Older Adults 

In The Recovery Village survey, the majority of respondents thought cancer was a more frequent diagnosis than addiction among the elderly, and only six percent of people identified seniors as the demographic most impacted by drug or alcohol addiction. However, adults over the age of 65 struggle with addiction at a much higher rate than most people realize.

Approximately 2.5 million seniors have a substance use disorder in the United States. In addition to being largely unnoticed by the American public, senior addiction is complicated, and often a cyclical problem. This is because seniors experience more health-related conditions than their younger cohorts, which means they often take increasing amounts of prescription medications. Older adults can become dependent on, and addicted to, drugs faster than other age groups due to these conditions, which include:

  • Cognitive decline
  • Slower metabolism
  • Co-occurring health conditions
  • Increased physical and psychiatric ailments
  • Increased physical injuries

All too often in America, the recommended remedies to these normal side effects of aging are a slew of prescription drugs. Many may be highly effective, but their potency often comes with a price. In fact, most of the drugs that seniors take to ward off pain or supplement their health are highly addictive, and three, in particular, do more harm than healing.  

Which Drugs Do Seniors Misuse Most? 

In The Recovery Village survey, respondents were asked to choose which substances they believe seniors struggle with the most. Over 50 percent of people believed prescription opioids were to blame for most elderly addictions, followed by alcohol (22 percent of answers) and prescription sedatives (17 percent of answers).

Sadly, these answers mirror reality: The two types of drugs seniors most often misuse are alcohol and prescription drugs. More specifically, the elderly’s use of alcohol, benzodiazepines (a type of sedatives) and potent painkillers (opioids) is the most concerning. In America, widowers ages 75 and older have the highest rate of alcoholism, and people ages 65 and older take almost 30 percent of all medications prescribed in the United States — even though they comprise about 13 percent of the population.   

Alcohol 

In America, alcohol is the most commonly misused drug among adults ages 65 and over. Drinking can be a force of habit among seniors, or a way to cope with the increasing number of lifestyle changes, but alcohol use becomes more dangerous with age.  

Alcoholism in seniors can cause:

  • Estrangement from loved ones
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Recurring falls or similar injuries
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Unstable hypertension
  • Frequent visits to the emergency room

Alcohol use can prove deadly for seniors, especially if they mix alcohol with prescription medications like benzodiazepines and opioids.

Benzodiazepines 

Sadly, for the elderly, many addictions begin with a prescription. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that almost 3 in 10 people between the ages of 57 and 85 use at least five prescription drugs. Additionally, 17 million of these prescriptions are for powerful sedative drugs, some of the most common being benzodiazepines.

Nicknamed “benzos,” benzodiazepine drugs include the popular psychoactive medications Valium, Klonopin and Xanax. These drugs are often prescribed to seniors to soothe the symptoms of anxiety disorders, cerebral palsy and insomnia.

Benzodiazepine addiction can be difficult to pinpoint, but symptoms are usually behavioral in nature and can include:

  • Poor self-care or grooming
  • Appearing confused or forgetful
  • Appearing overly relaxed or in a daze
  • Becoming defensive when asked about medication
  • Filling prescriptions at different pharmacies
  • Taking pills at unusual times

Many of the signs of benzodiazepine misuse can also be seen if someone is misusing powerful painkillers like opioids.

Opioids

Opioids, like Vicodin, oxycodone and hydrocodone, are potent painkillers, which make them perfect for prescribing to people who struggle with different types of pain, namely the elderly. Older adults face a high risk of opioid misuse because they struggle with the type of pain that these drugs are designed to alleviate. The elderly take opioids to ease post-surgical pain, chronic pain and the uncomfortable symptoms of conditions like shingles, arthritis and osteoporosis.

Sadly, opioid misuse has skyrocketed in the senior citizen community. In recent years, the rate of opioid misuse has almost doubled among Americans over age 50, according to SAMHSA. Additionally, data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services shows that 1 in 3 seniors with Medicare Part D (14.4 million people) hold prescriptions for opioids, and of these individuals, almost 90,000 are at serious risk of opioid addiction.

For senior citizens, the consequences of opioid misuse are numerous, and some common warning signs of opioid addiction include:

  • Negative changes in mood and behavior
  • Forgetfulness and memory issues
  • Recurring falls or other injuries
  • Having a supply of “extra” pills
  • Taking more pills than prescribed
  • Combining opioid medications with alcohol

How the Elderly Can Overcome Addiction 

If you or someone you love struggles with alcoholism, a benzodiazepine use disorder or an addiction to opioids, help is available. The Recovery Village helps people of all ages overcome substance use disorders and co-occurring mental illnesses with comprehensive, compassionate treatment. Offering a full continuum of care from medical detox programs to aftercare support, The Recovery Village can help you heal from any kind of drug or alcohol use disorder, at any stage of life. The skilled teams of doctors, clinicians and therapists at each location can craft individualized treatment plans that meet your specific physical and mental needs so you can embrace life beyond addiction.

Call The Recovery Village today at 352.771.2700 to speak with a caring representative who can answer your questions about treatment and match you with a facility and program that can meet your needs. Calling is toll-free, obligation-free and completely confidential.  

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Elderly Addiction: Alcohol and Benzos and Opioids, Oh My!
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Camille Renzoni

About Camille Renzoni

As a creative writer, I balance functionality and originality to bring brands to life. As an out-of-the-box thinker, I'm always excited to bring fresh ideas to the table. And as a first generation vegan and caring ISFJ, I protect the earth and practice gratitude every day.

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