senior drug use

When caring for a senior adult, there are many aspects of their health to worry about — from sudden falls to increased health ailments. However, drug use is usually something parents worry about with their children more so than the senior adults in their lives. Surprisingly, senior adults are more at risk for substance misuse than people may realize.

Here are five statistics about senior adults misusing substances that might surprise you. 

1. Nearly 1 million adults aged 65 and older have a substance use disorder

While illicit drug use is typically associated with teens and young adults, nearly 1 million senior adults have a substance use disorder (SUD). From 2000 to 2012, the number of older adults admitted into treatment facilities increased from 3.4% to 7% during that 12-year span.

2. Eighteen percent of elderly adults are at risk for a major drug-drug interaction

A surprising statistic is that senior adults have a significant prevalence of prescription drug misuse. According to a study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine in 2021, approximately 18.2% of older adults (aged 60 and above) misuse prescription drugs, including opioids, sedatives, and stimulants.

3. There’s been an increase of over 100% in the prevalence of alcohol use disorder

Contrary to popular belief, alcohol misuse among senior adults is a growing concern. A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in 2021 revealed that between 2000 and 2017, the prevalence of alcohol use disorder among adults aged 65 and older increased by a staggering 107.8%.

4. The number of adults aged 65 and up who smoke marijuana/take edibles spiked 75% in three years

In a study published in February 2020, JAMA reported that the number of Americans over the age of 65 who smoke marijuana or take edibles spiked 75% in three years. While medical marijuana becoming legal in several states may at least partially account for the increase in usage, older adults living with chronic diseases may also account for the increase in usage. The marijuana delivery platform Eaze reported Boomers are their biggest spender, spending around $95 per month, as opposed to Gen Z aged 21-24, who spend 53% less on marijuana per month.

Because marijuana has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, senior adults should weigh the potential benefits of marijuana use against the risks, especially for those who take prescription medications for other health conditions.

5. Three percent increase in illicit drug use

Senior adults are not immune to illicit drug use either. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reported that from 2015 to 2020, illicit drug use among adults aged 50 and older increased from 2.8% to 6%. This represents a significant rise in drug misuse within this age group.

Impact on Cognitive Abilities

Substance misuse can have a pronounced effect on the cognitive abilities of senior adults. Age naturally brings about certain cognitive declines, and the addition of drugs or alcohol can exacerbate these changes. Misusing substances can lead to impaired judgment, making seniors more susceptible to accidents or poor decisions. Memory loss, which many seniors already struggle with due to age or conditions like Alzheimer’s, can be further accelerated with substance misuse. Furthermore, some drugs can induce confusion or delirium in older adults, leading to disorientation and an inability to carry out daily tasks independently.

Risk factors for substance misuse among senior adults

Risk factors for substance misuse among senior adults can contribute to the development and exacerbation of SUDs in this population. While substance misuse is often associated with younger individuals, it is crucial to recognize the specific risk factors affecting senior adults. Understanding these factors can help identify vulnerable individuals and implement targeted prevention and intervention strategies.

One significant risk factor is the presence of chronic pain and other health conditions. Senior adults may experience age-related physical discomfort, leading to the use of prescription opioids or other medications for pain relief. However, prolonged use of these substances can increase the risk of developing an SUD. Furthermore, the co-occurrence of multiple health conditions may result in polypharmacy, where individuals are prescribed multiple medications simultaneously, increasing the likelihood of drug interactions and misuse.

Social isolation is another risk factor that affects senior adults. Loss of loved ones, retirement, or limited mobility can lead to feelings of loneliness and a lack of social support. This isolation can contribute to boredom, depression, and anxiety, which may prompt some individuals to turn to substance use as a coping mechanism or for self-medication.

Psychological factors, such as a history of trauma, mental health disorders, or unresolved emotional issues, can also increase the susceptibility to substance misuse among senior adults. Traumatic experiences or untreated mental health conditions can lead to self-destructive behaviors, including substance misuse, as a way to alleviate distress or escape from painful memories.

Additionally, the accessibility of substances can play a role in senior adults’ misuse. Prescription medications may be readily available due to legitimate medical needs, making it easier for individuals to misuse or divert these drugs for non-medical purposes. Furthermore, societal attitudes towards substance use, including normalization or lack of awareness, can contribute to the underestimation of the problem among senior adults.

Recognizing these risk factors is crucial for health care professionals, caregivers, and family members to implement preventive measures and offer appropriate support. Encouraging regular health screenings, promoting social engagement, providing mental health services, and improving education about the risks of substance misuse can all contribute to reducing the incidence and impact of SUDs among senior adults. By addressing these risk factors, it is possible to create a safer and healthier environment for this vulnerable population.

Signs and symptoms of substance misuse in senior adults

Signs and symptoms of substance misuse in senior adults may include changes in behavior, mood swings, social withdrawal, neglecting personal hygiene, unexplained financial difficulties, frequent falls or accidents, memory problems, changes in appetite or weight, and a decline in overall health and well-being.

Financial Exploitation

Financial exploitation of seniors is a growing concern, and substance misuse can make this demographic even more vulnerable. As seniors struggle with substance addiction or dependence, they may become easy targets for scams, fraud, or undue influence from unscrupulous individuals. These perpetrators may take advantage of a senior’s impaired judgment due to drugs or alcohol, leading them into financial decisions that they might not make sober. This can range from buying unnecessary products to giving away significant amounts of money or even changing estate documents. Family members and caregivers should remain vigilant and be aware of sudden changes in financial behavior or unexplained expenditures.

At Wellspring Center of Prevention, our Wellness Initiative for Senior Education (WISE) program provides valuable educational services to older adults on topics including nutrition and exercise, medication use, stress management, depression, and substance abuse. Contact us today for more information about this, and other, senior prevention programs.

Senior Sense: Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out our other blogs to learn more about senior health.

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