Addiction often goes undiagnosed. When a person is older, accidental or unnoticed addictions become even more likely. As people age, ailments and injuries become more common. Doctors prescribe more prescription drugs. Individuals become more likely to experience complications, interactions and addictions. You or an elderly loved one becomes more likely to misuse drugs or alcohol by accident or even on purpose.

Do Many Elderly People Become Addicted to Drugs?

If you or an older adult friend or family member struggles with addiction, you are not alone. Addiction is common among the elderly, and it’s becoming more common. As previously mentioned, part of this is due to the large number of prescriptions elderly patients receive. The National Institute on Drug Abuse says “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.”1 This means addiction is also a common concern. The New York Times reports that in 2010, “About 14 to 20 percent of the overall elderly population had one or more substance abuse or mental disorders.”2 These aren’t dire statistics. They are reason to pay attention to drug use and to take action if problems arise. It’s never too late to get help and support for recovery, and many treatment programs offer care specially tailored to older patients.

Elderly man holding pill bottle

Is Alcohol a Problem for Older Adults?

Alcohol may be causing problems for you or someone you love. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports “An estimated 2.8 million older adults in the United States meet the criteria for alcohol abuse. By the year 2020…that number is expected to reach 5.7 million.”3 Many hospital and emergency room visits are linked to alcohol use. Alcohol also interacts with prescription drugs and can change or worsen the impact these have on physical and mental health.

Why Do Older Individuals Become Addicted?

Addiction is never a choice. It isn’t a problem for just one specific gender, age group or economic status. Older people become addicted for a variety of reasons. Over-prescription of drugs to elderly patients is just one reason.

Extended prescriptions are another reason for addiction among the elderly. Many drugs like benzodiazepines and opiates are meant for short-term use. When a patient is older, doctors may prescribe these long term instead. If a drug seems to be improving quality of life or a patient doesn’t report side effects, doctors may assume benefits outweigh risks. However the longer a person uses a powerful medication, the more likely addiction becomes.

Older individuals may be more or differently affected by drugs than younger users. As people age, metabolisms change. Body systems function differently or not as well. For example the liver becomes less efficient with age. This organ filters toxins, so as a person ages, he or she may be more strongly affected by lower doses of a drug.

Older adults may see more than one doctor. These medical professionals may prescribe medications without being aware of what an elderly patient may already be prescribed. This can lead to multiple addictions and increases the risk of serious health complications. Elderly adults often also take supplements and over-the-counter drugs which can also increase the odds for an adverse reaction between substances.

Drug and alcohol use can also be connected to mental health. As we age, we lose people we love. We face difficult times. We face loneliness. While the good in life outweighs the bad, negative thoughts and depression can contribute to substance use. Medications and alcohol can seem to calm anxiety, depression and other mental health symptoms. However they only makes these problems worse in the long run. Integrated treatment addresses both addiction and mental health issues so that patients leave feeling healthier, happier and stronger than ever.

How Do I Know If I’m Addicted?

If you are worried about your or a loved one’s drug use, start by getting an accurate assessment and diagnosis. Your doctor can help you with this, or you can reach out to professional addiction treatment providers. Why is a diagnosis so important? The Center for Applied Research Solutions shares, “Although 60% of substance abuse is recognized in patients younger than 60, only 37% is recognized in patients over the age of 60.”4 Substance abuse goes unnoticed for many reasons. Elderly patients are less likely to report symptoms. A doctor may not realize the number of medications a patient is taking or know how they are interacting. Family members are more likely to confuse addiction and mental health symptoms with typical signs of aging. If you are worried, don’t write off your concerns. Addiction is serious at any age. It can also be diagnosed and treated at any age.

What Can I Do About Addiction?

You can’t get treatment until you know the problems you face. Call an addiction helpline, and talk with a doctor. These conversations are confidential, so you have nothing to lose by simply asking questions and learning more. Once a professional diagnoses addiction, you can take the next steps. While many treatment centers cater to teens or younger adults, a growing number offer programs specially catered to elderly patients.

If you are worried about a loved one, you can also take action. Look for warning signs, be present in your loved one’s life, monitor prescription drug use and make sure he or she is going to doctor appointments and sharing all important information about medications. If you do suspect a problem with prescription drug or alcohol use, begin a conversation about addiction. Ask for professional help in diagnosing and approaching the issue. Learn what you can do to help.

Where Can I Find Help?

Black Bear Lodge is a state-of-the-art addiction and mental health treatment facility. Our treatment team understands the unique needs of elderly patients. We can help you diagnose mental health and addiction concerns, get appropriate and comprehensive care and move forward no matter where you are in life.

1Misuse of Prescription Drugs.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Aug. 2016.

2 Friendman, Richard. “A Rising Tide of Substance Abuse.” New York Times. 29 Apr. 2013.

3 “Spotlight on Alcohol Use and Older Adults.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. 2 Jan. 2016.

4 Basca, Belinda. “The Elderly and Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse.” Center for Applied Research Solutions. 2008.