Addiction In The Elderly

The healthy effects of substance abuse for individuals over the age of 65 can be extremely dangerous. It is not uncommon for an addiction to develop later in life.

Senior Citizens and Substance Abuse

Drug and alcohol abuse among the elderly is a rapidly growing health problem in the United States. People age 65 and up are often under-diagnosed as having an addiction and do not receive the help they need.

According to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, substance abuse among senior citizens can be classified into two general forms: the “hardy survivor,” or those who have been abusing substances for many years and have reached 65, and the “late onset” group, which are those who form addictions later in life.

There are treatment options available to help you get back on a healthy path regardless of how old you are.

Causes Of Addiction In The Elderly

There are many contributing factors to why someone turns to substance abuse later in life. Among the factors are health-related issues or life-changing events that take an emotional toll on the individual. Events such as these can cause drug-abusing behaviors to result in a full-scale addiction.

Potential triggers for drug or alcohol addiction in the elderly are:

  • 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 (depression, memory loss, major surgeries, etc.)

The Dangers of Elderly Substance Abuse

Drug or alcohol abuse among the elderly is particularly dangerous. Senior citizens are more susceptible to the deteriorating effects of these substances.

Individuals over the age of 65 have a decreased ability to metabolize drugs or alcohol as compared to younger individuals. This decreased ability along with an increased brain sensitivity to the drugs and alcohol makes it dangerous for this age group to use the substances at all.

Benzodiazepines (benzos) are some of the most dangerous prescription drugs for seniors. The rate of senior citizens who become addicted to benzodiazepines every year increases due to the drugs highly addictive qualities.

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Challenges In Identifying Addiction In The Elderly

Alcohol or drug abuse may actually mimic symptoms of other medical or mental health disorders, such as diabetes, dementia or depression. Doctors who work with older patients may attribute the symptoms of drug and alcohol addiction to “old age.”

“Not long ago, a medical colleague referred a 67-year-old woman to me with mild depression, weakness and complaints of short-term memory loss. Her physician told her there was no clear medical explanation for her symptoms, given that her physical exam, exhaustive lab tests and brain M.R.I. were all normal.

The problem, I soon discovered, was that her alcohol consumption had tripled since the death of her husband a year earlier. She did disclose to her internist that she drank but minimized the amount. She had turned to alcohol, self-medicating her grief, but it only worsened her mood and impaired her memory, typical of alcohol’s effects on the brain.” – Richard A. Friedman, M.D.,

Symptoms of Addiction In Senior Citizens

As people age, their mental and physical health begins to deteriorate along with their personal relationships. It’s very important to notice the unusual signs an elderly person may be exhibiting as the signs may be an indicator of an addiction.

Some signs of elderly drug abuse to look for include:

  • Memory problems
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Irritability, sadness, depression
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to be alone often
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Losing touch with loved ones
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

Once an addiction is identified, it is critical to seek out a treatment center that has specific experience working with seniors facing addiction.

When looking for programs, you should look for a program that specializes in case management services as well as treatment for the addiction. Individuals over the age of 65 sometimes lack the social support needed to be able to recover from the addiction. Case management services provides your loved with access to medical, psychiatric, and social resources needed to be able to have a healthy life after treatment.

Elderly Abuse Statistics


17% of people in the United States over 65 years old have abused prescription medications, according to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services.


Approximately 30% of adults over 65 are given some type of prescription medicine, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc.

1 Drink

According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, men and women aged 65 or older should consume no more than 1 drink daily and a maximum of 2 drinks on any occasion.

Get Into Treatment Now

Individuals age 65 and older are developing an addiction to substances at an alarming rate. This should be of concern and should not be ignored by family, medical professionals, or caretakers.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction issues later in life and need help finding a treatment program, please call us now.