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Substance Abuse in Older Adults

You noticed your grandfather had three alcoholic drinks at a family gathering even though your grandmother asked him to stop after one. Could he have a problem with substance abuse? Substance abuse among older adults is growing, but we can get control if we learn the facts.

What is Substance Abuse?

Johns Hopkins Medicine defines substance abuse this way:

“Substance abuse is the medical term used to describe a pattern of using a substance (drug) that causes significant problems or distress. This may be missing work or school, using the substance in dangerous situations, such as driving a car. It may lead to substance-related legal problems or continued substance use that interferes with friendships, family relationships, or both.” It’s a recognized medical brain disorder that mainly refers to the abuse of illegal substances and could include legal substances as a source of abuse.

It’s gotten especially worrisome among older adults.

Substance Abuse in Older Adults

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, illicit drug use normally declines after young adulthood. Still, almost 1 million adults aged 65 and older have a substance use disorder (SUD), according to 2018 data. BMC Health Services Research noted that the total number of SUD entries to treatment facilities from 2000 to 2012 differed slightly. However, the percentage of admissions of older adults went up from 3.4 percent to 7.0 percent during this time.

The Top Substances of Abuse Among Older Adults

The health effects of substance use among older adults can be worse than in younger people. The combination of chronic health conditions and prescription medications can boost the harmful effects of substance use.

  • Do older adults consume more alcohol than younger substance abusers? Maybe, maybe not, but misuse of alcohol often takes place behind the scenes. What’s worrisome is that older adults may experience noticeable intoxication after drinking in quantities that would be considered safe among younger adults, due largely to increased effects on the central nervous system in older adults.
  • There’s an increasingly serious public health concern among older people because of the rise in addiction to prescription medications, particularly opioids and benzodiazepines. The use of five or more prescription drugs by elderly people can lead to addiction and result in falls, confusion, and death. Opioids have especially high addictive potential.
  • Trends suggest that Baby Boomers – older adults born between 1946 and 1964 – embrace illicit drugs and marijuana in much greater numbers than previous generations. Perhaps it’s because they grew up during an era of substance experimentation. Seniors who tried drugs in their youth may be more at risk of using similar drugs, like marijuana, to treat conditions of old age like chronic pain. “Synthetic marijuana use is not limited to young people and often involves dangerous chemicals with unpredictable composition. It can be more potent than natural strains of cannabis and carries an increased risk of psychiatric side effects. Abuse of heroin and cocaine is also on the rise among older people and is associated with adverse medical and psychiatric consequences including cardiovascular problems and cognitive impairment.”
  • Nicotine. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that in 2017, about 8 percent of people aged 65 and older smoked cigarettes, boosting their chance of cancer and heart disease. Yes, it’s a lower rate than it is for younger adults, but research indicates that older people who smoke have a greater chance of becoming frail, though people who have quit don’t seem to be at higher risk.

Studies indicate that substance abuse among older adults is a serious problem.

Diagnosis and Treatment

A doctor or qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses substance abuse. The final determination may depend on:

  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue
  • Red eyes
  • Not concerned about hygiene
  • Lab results
  • Unexpected irregularities in blood pressure or heart rate
  • Depression, sleep problems, or anxiety

A range of recovery or treatment programs for substance abuse are available either as inpatient or outpatient schedules, including long-term follow-up management, detoxification, and other programs. Group therapy and support systems are important treatment components.

Ketamine Therapy as an Alternative

The symptoms of many conditions which lead older adults to substance abuse – chronic pain, cancer pain, mental illness, etc. – can often be treated by medical doctors or mental health specialists. In-person counseling is one choice. While certain medications may work, more patients and healthcare professionals are turning to another option – ketamine therapy. It’s medicine once used solely for anesthesia but has proven effective in relieving symptoms of some conditions which may lead to substance abuse.

Final Thoughts

Substance abuse is a growing problem among older adults, but the effects are just as harmful and far-reaching as they would be for younger people. If you suspect an older loved one is a substance abuser, reach out for support from a doctor or mental health professional.

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