Drug and alcohol addiction has devastating impacts on lives no matter the age, cultural background, family history or socioeconomic status. When someone gets stuck in the cycle of substance abuse, it not only affects their physical and mental well-being, it also affects their relationships with their family, friends, and others who are close to them. Currently, the United States is experiencing rates of drug addictions at epidemic rates, with most of the focus being kept on the heroin epidemic. Families and communities are losing loved ones at alarming rates from drugs such as heroin and prescription medications, and the focus has primarily been on the younger generations who are abusing them. Now however there is a growing problem of drug abuse in older adults.
This demographic group is experiencing an increase in rates of drug dependence and addiction, and surprisingly enough, that group is senior citizens. Persons aged 65 years and older comprise only 13 percent of the US population, yet they account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription medications in the United States.
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With widespread prescription medication use and abuse, and older adults often getting multiple prescriptions to help combat a variety of ailments, drug abuse among older adults has become a serious issue and one of growing concern among health professionals, lawmakers, and families across the country.
The Silent Epidemic
The extent in which drug abuse impacts older adults in the United States can be difficult to gauge. The main reason for this difficulty is the simple fact that many of the common signs of aging in the geriatric population can mirror the signs and symptoms of drug misuse.
- It is estimated that 12 to 15 percent of older adults who seek medical attention are experiencing some form of drug dependence issue.
- According to one study done by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the number of Americans over the age of 50 that abuse prescription drugs will increase to 2.7 million people by the year 2020.
The prevalence of prescription drug misuse among senior citizens and Americans over 50 isn’t the only concern. Alcohol abuse and alcoholism is also a major health issue among older adults in the United States.
- Some studies estimate that more than a third of drinkers that are age 60 years old and older consume amounts of alcohol that are excessive or that are potentially harmful.
- When combined with prescription medications and any underlying medical conditions they may have, older adults who abuse drugs run the increased risk of developing life-threatening complications.
Why Is Drug Abuse so Common among Older Adults?
There are a myriad of reasons why older adults get addicted to drugs and alcohol. One major reason for this phenomenon is the fact that older adults take more medications and are often prescribed multiple medications at the same time.
According to a fact sheet created by MUST for Seniors, two of every five older adults who are patients are taking five or more medications concurrently.
Older adults who seek medical help also are more likely to have more than one prescribing doctor or physician at one time and also are living with one or more chronic health conditions that require the use of medications.
Older adults also abuse drugs and alcohol due to the added stresses then come with entering their “golden years.” Retirement, the loss of a spouse or loved one, and financial burdens as a result of their illnesses are all significant contributors to the development of substance abuse issues.
Additionally, seniors who experience extended hospital stays or move to an assisted living care facility are at increased risk for developing an addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Like with other age groups, the onset of a mental illness can also cause older adults to use drugs and alcohol as a means of self-medicating and coping with the stress connected with their illness. In older adults, mental illnesses such as dementia, depression, and anxiety are common.
Symptoms of Drug Abuse among Older Adults
As stated earlier, the signs and symptoms of drug and alcohol abuse in older adults can be hard to diagnose. The symptoms of substance abuse can easily be covered up by an illness such as depression, physical disability or memory loss associated with growing older. Oftentimes healthcare professionals may mistake addiction symptoms for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. Some of the common signs that drug abuse is occurring in older adults can include the following:
- Increased confusion or mental impairment
- Changes in mood
- Inability or difficulty with appetite
- Problems sleeping and disruptions of normal sleep patterns
- Changes in blood pressure
- Fatigue or weakness
- Frequent falls
Additionally, drug and alcohol abuse can cause severe nerve damage, confusion, clumsiness, muscle problems, and coma.
The Importance of Effective Drug Treatment
For older adults struggling with drug addiction, finding a reputable drug treatment facility that offers programs that are created for their unique needs is the first step. Older adults require special considerations that need to be taken into account in regards to treatment. In general, older adults keep their addiction hidden from family and friends and feel a great deal of shame in regards to their inability to stop. They may be very hesitant in entering treatment, and when they do finally enter a treatment facility they may not be fully vested in the treatment process. Effective drug treatment for older adults is a collaborative effort between addiction professionals, mental health experts, and the family.
Senior-specific drug treatment programs also need to have a strong dual diagnosis element since co-occurring disorders are common in older adults. Drug treatment for seniors also needs more emphasis on medical care and detoxification since an older adult’s metabolism and body chemistry changes as they grow older. Additionally, drug treatment programming needs to emphasize more in the way of group support, and treatment should be affordable given the specific financial needs of older adults and their families.
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