Drug and Alcohol Abuse in the Elderly and Senior Population

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Substance use disorders impact individuals of all ages and backgrounds. In the United States approximately 59.3 million individuals engaged in the use of a substance in 2020. (1) The next year, approximately 61.2 million individuals reportedly engaged in the use of a substance. (2) That same year, approximately 46.3 million individuals, over the age of 11, were diagnosed with a substance use disorder. (3) Of those experiencing substance use, only 6 percent received treatment. (4) Though substance use has been more prevalent for individuals between the ages of 18 and 25, many individuals may be surprised by the amount of individuals within the elderly and senior population who are impacted negatively by substance use. (5) The amount of elderly individuals seeking substance use treatment increased by approximately 50 percent from 2009 to 2020. (6)

At Guardian Recovery, we offer evidence-based treatment for those suffering from substance use disorders. Focusing on stabilizing, motivating, and reintegrating individuals into safe and healthy lifestyles, we are committed to decreasing the amount of people experiencing the severe consequences of addiction. Providing therapeutic interventionslife skills training, and psychoeducation, we are dedicated to helping individuals experiencing substance use develop the necessary tools needed for long-term sobriety. Contact us today for more information and to get started.

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How Prevalent Is Substance Addiction in Seniors?

The prevalence of substance use in the elderly population continues to grow. In 2018, approximately 1 million individuals, 65 years of age and older, met the diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder. (7) In 2020, approximately 167,200 individuals, ages 55 and up, were enrolled into a substance use treatment program. (8) As an individual ages, their body experiences various changes. Those 65 years of age and older typically metabolize substances at a slower rate than younger individuals. (9) Additionally, the brain of an individual becomes more sensitive to substances as an individual ages. These different factors may lead to the growing rate of older adults developing a substance use disorder.

What Are Common Substances Misused by the Elderly?

The substances that are common amongst the elderly and senior population differ from other age groups. The most commonly misused substances among those 65 years of age and older are opioids and benzodiazepines. (10)

Other substances that are commonly misused by elderly and senior adults include: (11)

  • Alcohol
  • Marijuana
  • Stimulants
  • Tranquilizers
  • Sedatives
  • Nicotine
  • Prescription medications

Is Addiction Treatment for the Elderly Different Than Treatment for Younger Adults?

Overall, treatment for the elderly is similar to the treatment available for younger adults. There is little research regarding which treatment is best for older adults, however, treatment outcomes improve when care is provided for a longer period of time. (12) Additionally, those providing substance use treatment for older adults must pay close attention in order not to confuse substance use related symptoms with those related to chronic health conditions or natural changes. More research is needed in order for screening methods for elderly substance misuse to be appropriately developed.

What Are Risk Factors for the Elderly Developing Substance Dependence?

The increase of elderly individuals experiencing substance use disorders is due to a combination of risk factors.

Key risk factors contributing to the increase in elderly drug addiction include: (13)

  • Decreased family support and social interaction.
  • Experiencing physical changes in the brain.
  • Developing a slower metabolism.
  • Experiencing co-occuring mental health disorders.
  • Having a history of substance use.
  • Misusing prescription medications.
  • Experiencing chronic pain.

Can Chronic Pain in Seniors Lead To Addiction?

Chronic pain is persistent pain that lasts longer than the usual recovery period. Chronic pain is common amongst seniors and it can lead to increased complications. (14) Opioids are prescription medications that can be prescribed to help with pain relief. Experiencing chronic and persistent pain can lead to an individual becoming dependent on their pain medication. The amount of individuals ages 65 years and older being prescribed opioid medications has continued to increase since 1995. (15)

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Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders & Addiction Treatment in Seniors

Oftentimes, substance use disorders and mental health disorders occur simultaneously. Mental health disorders can exasperate substance use disorders, and vice versa. Research has found that those experiencing mental health disorders may use substances in order to self medicate, though this is only a temporary fix. (16) Additionally, engaging in substance use can trigger the development of certain mental health disorders.

Mental health disorders that may co-occur with substance use disorders include: (17)

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Personality Disorders
  • Schizophrenia

At Guardian Recovery, we offer dual diagnosis treatment options for older adults experiencing mental health and substance use disorders at the same time.

The Role of Family & Support for Treatment & Recovery in Seniors

Research has found that having the support of one’s family can increase overall treatment outcomes. (18)  Having the support of family members and close friends can help foster a sense of community for the individual receiving treatment. Involving family members in the recovery process can help with increasing treatment motivation levels, and it allows family members the opportunity to process how substance use has impacted them and others. At Guardian Recovery, we offer family workshops and family therapy to help mend any maladaptive family dynamics that may have developed over time. Family therapy is an effective tool to help individuals develop adaptive coping and communication techniques.

Effective Treatment Approaches for Treating Addiction in the Elderly

There are different effective treatment options for older adults experiencing substance use disorders.

Ideal and effective treatment approaches for treating drug addiction in seniors include:

  • The diagnosis and management of other chronic medical conditions.
  • Rebuilding emotional and familial support systems.
  • Improving the individual’s access to mental health and medical services.
  • The utilization of case management.
  • Utilizing a staff of clinicians trained in evidence-based treatment options for the elderly.

Senior Drug & Alcohol Use Treatment Program Options

At Guardian Recovery, we offer comprehensive and evidence-based treatment options for older adults needing substance use treatment.

Our treatment programs available for elderly and senior individuals seeking substance use treatment include:

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If you suspect that you or a loved one are experiencing a substance use disorder, treatment is an effective option utilized to overcome it. At Guardian Recovery, we specialize in providing individualized treatment options that are created based on each individual’s specific needs. One of our Treatment Advisors is ready to speak to you and help guide you through our simple admissions process. A free, no obligation insurance benefits check can be provided to help you determine which of our treatment options is covered by your health insurance plan. Contact us today to start your journey to recovery.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://www.samhsa.gov/newsroom/press-announcements/202110260320
  2. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  3. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  4. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  5. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  6. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/report/treatment-episode-data-set-teds-2020-admissions
  7. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-older-adults-drugfacts
  8. https://www.seniorliving.org/research/substance-abuse-seniors/
  9. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-older-adults-drugfacts
  10. https://www.jgmh.org/article.asp?issn=2348-9995;year=2015;volume=2;issue=2;page=74;epage=82;aulast=Sarkar
  11. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/cbhsq-reports/NSDUHDetailedTabs2018R2/NSDUHDetTabsSect1pe2018.htm
  12. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-older-adults-drugfacts
  13. https://www.seniorliving.org/research/substance-abuse-seniors/
  14. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-older-adults-drugfacts#ref
  15. https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/substance-use-in-older-adults-drugfacts#ref
  16. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health
  17. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/substance-use-and-mental-health
  18. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6803054/

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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