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Addiction & Substance Overuse

Drug Abuse Among Seniors

The problem of older adults abusing prescription medications and illicit drugs hasn’t gotten enough attention, says Dr. Gaya Dowling, acting chief of science policy branch at NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse). “When we think of drug abuse, we think of young people,” says Dowling. But there has been an undeniable rise in the number of patients over 50 who require intervention and treatment. Many more remain in the shadows, undiagnosed.

One study that measured the rate of hospital admissions for conditions related to prescription medications and illicit drug use of people 65 to 84 between 1997 and 2008 cited aneye-popping increase of 96 percent. Dowling notes that ERs have seen an increase in people 55 and over with conditions that involve the use of drugs, and there has been an increase in the number of people 55+ being admitted to treatment facilities for addiction.

“The concern with drug abuse by older adults is that, even if they are not using at the same level as young people, the consequences could be greater because of changes in the way the aging body is able to process drugs: smaller amounts cause greater consequences when you factor in age-related diseases and conditions and adverse interactions among medications.”

Over 20 percent of people between ages 57 and 85 use at least five prescriptions, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Some of those prescriptions may be for painkillers, or opiates, which are addictive. Add alcohol to the mixture and senior behavior may mimic dementia or cause physical symptoms such as falling and other home accidents.

A study conducted by the Hanley Center, a treatment facility in Florida, found that 63 percent of older adults blamed depression and anxiety for their prescription drug and alcohol substance abuse; 30 percent said economic and financial stress was to blame; and 20 percent cited retirement as a contributing factor. Dr. Barbara Krantz, Medical Director of the Hanley Center, called this transitional time of life and aging “the perfect storm for [drug and alcohol] dependency.”

An article in the Boston Globe in late August by Meg Murphy reported that in Massachusetts “a significant number of adults over 54 seek substance abuse services, with a surprising number seeking treatment for heroin addiction.” Murphy notes the shocking news that although alcohol abuse accounts for about 75 percent of substance treatment admissions in that area among older adults, “heroin is now the second-most popular substance of choice.”

 It is rare that older adults will voluntarily seek help for addiction to prescription medication or illicit drugs. Besides the shame and desire for privacy, denial is part of the disease of addiction, which is why it is important for family members to be able to recognize signs of medicine or drug abuse.