Seniors struggle with addiction more than most people realize.
The (U.S.) National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that nearly 2.5 million older adults face a substance use disorder in the United States. Aging involves a number of significant life changes, all of which can cause someone’s physical, mental and emotional well-being to wane. The side effects of aging make experiencing alcoholism or a drug addiction much more likely to occur later in life. A substance use disorder only exacerbates the challenges of growing older.
Although substance use disorders can have severe consequences at any age, addiction is the most dangerous for seniors. This deadliness is due to a variety of interrelated physical and psychological factors like cognitive decline and a rise in co-occurring health conditions.
The top five factors that influence why this age group suffers from addiction more than most, include:
1. Slower Metabolism: As a person grows older, their body’s ability to process medications slows substantially. This means that the older someone grows, the longer it takes the body to break down every substance, from over-the-counter medications to alcohol. With substances staying active in their bodies for longer periods of time, seniors can become dependent on much smaller doses of each medication. To supplement their health, seniors often take pills for many ailments, from arthritis to Alzheimer’s Disease. Mixing medications and taking multiple pills at once takes a huge toll on seniors’ metabolism and can lead to a debilitating drug dependence.
2. More Surgical Procedures: Maintaining one’s physical health becomes harder with age. Seniors have an increased risk of sustaining an injury from accidents like tripping and falling, but broken hips aren’t the only reasons why a large number of seniors require surgery. The effects of chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease often accelerate later in life, making multiple surgeries necessary for many seniors. Aftercare for each surgery likely includes taking prescription painkillers, many of which are extremely addictive opioids like Vicodin, hydrocodone and oxycodone. With their sensitivity to medication, slower metabolism and existing regimen of other pills, seniors should be wary of taking habit-forming pain relievers like opioids to avoid developing a substance use disorder.
3. Long-Term Use of Psychoactive Medications: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that nearly 25 percent of seniors take psychoactive medications for longer periods of time than any other age group. This includes the 17 million sedative prescriptions taken by the elderly each year, the most common of which are benzodiazepines. Drugs like Xanax, Klonopin and Valium are all potent, psychoactive medications that help soothe the symptoms of chronic mental illnesses that seniors face. For seniors, these drugs are prescribed to treat anxiety disorders, insomnia and cerebral palsy, among other persistent conditions. However, because benzodiazepines hold a high abuse potential and are all too easy to become addicted to, it’s important that their use is monitored by a medical professional.
4. Mixing Alcohol and Medications: Alcohol is the most commonly misused drug among adults age 65 and over. Drinking can be a force of habit for seniors, or a way to cope with changing social or family dynamics. However, drinking alcohol excessively can spell disaster for anyone, particularly people belonging to this age group. Alcoholism can be disastrous for seniors, leading to recurring falls or spurring the negative effects of other health conditions, but when it’s mixed with prescription drugs, an alcohol use disorder can become truly life-threatening for seniors. No prescription medication is safe to wash down with alcohol. Pain relievers like opioids, benzodiazepines like Xanax and even sleeping pills can all have dangerous interactions with alcohol. The effects can be harmful at best and fatal at worst.
5. Medical Misdiagnosis of Addiction: Elderly substance use disorders are undiagnosed as often as they are misdiagnosed, as addiction often mimics the signs of aging. A drug or alcohol dependence may manifest in the same ways as other debilitating conditions, like dementia and depression. Insufficient medical knowledge, limited data and rushed office visits only make matters worse and leave seniors without the help they need to overcome addiction.
Getting Help for a Substance Use Disorder
Recognizing the signs of a drug or alcohol use disorder paves the way to the first step toward getting effective treatment. The symptoms of addiction can be both physical and behavioral in nature, and may vary depending on the drug(s) taken.
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