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During the Pandemic, Remember that Older Adults Have Substance Use Issues too!

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There are over 47 million people in the United States who are 65 years or older. What's alarming is that substance abuse among those 60 years and older (including those who misuse prescription drugs) currently affects about 17 percent of this population – that's a whopping eight million people.

As a baby boomer myself, and the fact that I work for a substance use prevention and education agency, I am fully aware of the fact that too many of my fellow senior adults have a problem.

I don't know if you are aware of this but as people age, their sensitivity to alcohol increases as their tolerance decreases? Also, the percent of their body weight composed of water decreases, and alcohol—which is water-soluble—affects them more quickly and to a greater degree.

Also, alcohol takes longer to metabolize in older persons, accumulating in our bodies and leading to intoxication if consumption is not controlled. And because of their physical make-up, older women are more vulnerable to the negative effects of alcohol.

Interestingly, there are more older men who have substance abuse problems than do older women, but women are more likely than men to start drinking heavily later in life. Substance abuse is more prevalent among persons who suffer a number of losses, including death of loved ones, retirement, and loss of health. The fact that women are more likely to be widowed or divorced, to have experienced depression, and to have been prescribed psychoactive medications that increase the negative effects of alcohol help explain these gender differences.

We also know that some health care providers often overlook substance abuse among older adults because they don't know what to look for or they mistakenly assume that older adults cannot be successfully treated. Loved ones, too, may excuse an older relative's substance abuse as a result of grief or loss or a reaction to boredom. Or family members may not want to confront an elder, fearing they will offend or anger them or (dare I say it?) get written out of the will.

As we get older, our mental health, physical health and personal relationships may start to deteriorate. Although addiction can be difficult to recognize in this demographic, it's important to pay attention to any unusual signs your elderly loved one displays. So if you know an older adult or work with them, here are some signs of substance abuse to be on the lookout for:

  • 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



The problem is that alcohol or drug abuse may actually mimic symptoms of other medical or mental health disorders, such as diabetes, dementia or depression. This makes it easy for doctors who encounter an older patient to chalk up declining mental or physical health simply to "old age."

And, although the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 for people who use drugs or have substance use disorder is not known, people who use drugs may have underlying medical conditions that put them at increased risk for severe illness from COVID-19, and they may have concerns and questions related to their risk. This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation and CDC will provide updated information as it becomes available.

We know that there is good evidence that older adults do as well as young people when it comes to treating substance abuse and that they may even do somewhat better. From what I've seen, older adults can recognize all kinds of benefit from treatment. There are often direct health benefits including improved cognition, more independent living, more and better social connectedness, and new hobbies.

There are many resources available to you, starting perhaps with Wellspring Center for Prevention. You can check out our website for information and resources. Just go to our information & referral section at http://wellspringprevention.org/information-referral.And if you need a referral for an older adult, you can call our Helpline at 732-254-3344 or do it online at www.helptool.org.

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