senior substance misuse

While many might believe substance misuse and addiction are more prevalent in the younger populations, senior adults are also at high risk for these habits — and for a variety of reasons. From mental health issues like depression and memory impairment to physical health issues like chronic pain and medical conditions, it’s often a slippery slope into addiction or substance misuse for many elderly patients.

However, understanding the causes and risk factors associated with substance misuse in senior adults can help prevent the issue altogether. Here’s what you should know.

Risk factors for substance misuse in senior adults

There are many reasons why senior adults might end up misusing or even abusing substances like alcohol or medication. Here are a few common risk factors:

  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Chronic pain/illnesses requiring medication
  • Social isolation
  • Lack of support
  • Anxiety
  • Grief/loss
  • Lack of medical counseling
  • Changes in routine

It’s important to note that substance misuse can be accidental. In many cases, senior adults, especially those with memory impairments, forget they already took their prescribed medication or confuse their dosage. In this case, it’s likely time for a caregiver to step in

Types of commonly misused substances among elderly

Certain types of substances are misused by senior adults more than others. However, each comes with risk factors and dangers. Here are some commonly misused substances — and reasons why senior adults are especially susceptible to misusing them.

Prescription meds

Over 80% of senior adults are prescribed at least one medication, with almost half taking more than five medications or supplements daily. Often, especially if unreported to their doctors, these medications can cause adverse side effects or interactions when mixed.

Additionally, senior adults who are confused or forgetful might mess up their dosage, which can be detrimental to both their physical and mental health.


Some older adults who battle chronic conditions or illnesses take opioids for pain management. While helpful in small doses and for an appropriate period of time, opioids can be extremely addictive and even act as a gateway to more dangerous drugs like heroin.


Marijuana has been legalized in some states and the general public’s views on the drug have begun to shift in recent years. Proponents of the drug state it is a resource for pain management, better sleep, and mental health, and many senior adults rely on it for those very reasons. However, regular use of this drug has been linked to respiratory conditions, depression, impaired memory, altered motor skills, and more. It can also interact with prescription drugs, which many elderly patients take daily.


Many senior adults smoke cigarettes, which can increase their risk for heart disease, cancer, and more. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a typical smoker who quits after age 65 can add two to three years to their life expectancy and, within a year of quitting, reduce their risk of coronary heart disease by half.


NIDA stated that 65% of adults 65 and older reported high-risk drinking, with more than one-tenth of older adults binge drinking. This is especially concerning if these adults take prescription medications that interact with alcohol.

For more information, contact or visit Wellspring Center for Prevention.

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