Substance Abuse and the Older Adult

Substance abuse among adults over the age of 60, particularly alcohol and prescription drugs, is one of the fastest growing health problems in the United States. Addiction among older adults is often underestimated and under-diagnosed, which can prevent them from getting the help they need.

Due to insufficient knowledge, limited research data, and hurried office visits, health care providers often overlook substance abuse in their older patients. This is made worse by the fact older people often have medical or behavioral disorders that mimic symptoms of substance abuse, such as depression, diabetes, or dementia. This makes it easy for doctors with patients who have declining mental or physical health to simply chalk it up to “old age.”

According to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, substance abuse among older adults can be classified into two general forms: the “hardy survivor,” those who have been abusing substances for many years and have reached 65, and the “late onset” group, those who form addictions later in life. Regardless of how old a person is when an addiction starts, there are treatment options available to help get back on a healthy path. There is no shame in asking for help. Reach out to family or friends or tell your health care provider you are concerned you may have an addiction and need their help.

Potential triggers or causes for drug or alcohol addiction include:
• Retirement
• Death of a family member, spouse, pet, or close friend
• Loss of income or financial strains
• Relocation or placement in a nursing home
• Trouble sleeping
• Family conflict
• Mental or physical health decline (memory loss, depression, major surgeries, etc.)

The alarming rate at which individuals 65 years and older are developing addictions to various substances is certainly reason for concern and something that should not be ignored by medical professionals, caregivers, or family members. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction issues later in life and need help resources can be found at

Holly Zielinski is the Chief Operating Officer for SeniorsPlus.

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