Father and SonSubstance Abuse and the Elderly

When the issue of substance abuse is discussed, society often thinks of it being a problem among teens, or perhaps young or reckless adults. However, this notion is completely incorrect. The nytimes.com recently reported that, “Baby boomers, who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when experimenting with drugs was pervasive, are far more likely to use illicit drugs than previous generations. For example, a 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that among adults aged 50 to 59, the rate of current illicit drug use increased to 6.3 percent in 2011 from 2.7 percent in 2002. Aside from alcohol, the most commonly abused drugs were opiates, cocaine and marijuana.” The realization that many of these individuals came of age during a time when drug experimentation was normal, allows more understanding of why these same individuals are struggling with addictions and abuse patterns in their later years.

The elderly most commonly abuse alcohol as their drug of choice. Again, nytimes.org reports that, “Numerous surveys document problematic drinking among the elderly. For example, a 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that 8.3 percent of adults 65 and older reported binge drinking, defined as having four or five drinks on one occasion in the past month, while the rate of heavy drinking was 2 percent. Given the increased sensitivity to the harmful effects of alcohol with aging, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that men and women aged 65 or older have no more than three drinks on any day and no more than seven drinks per week.”

Oasas.ny.gov recently indicated that, “In his work at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Hays found that 2.5 million older adults and 21% of older hospital patients had alcohol-related problems. (Hays, L. et al. Presented at a symposium for the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry 2002 Symposium: Substance Use Disorders in the Elderly: Prevalence, Special Considerations and Treatment.)” Many of the elderly report beginning to abuse alcohol later in life. Oasas.ny.gov reports that the elderly’s “alcohol abuse is often triggered by changes in life such as: retirement, death or separation from a family member, a friend or a pet, health concerns, reduced income, impairment of sleep and/or familial conflict. Because alcohol has a higher absorption rate in the elderly, much like it does in women, the same amount of alcohol produces higher blood alcohol levels, causing a greater degree of intoxication than the same amount of alcohol would cause in younger male drinkers.”

However, close on the heels of alcohol abuse is prescription drug abuse. Interestingly, women far outnumber men when it comes to prescription drug abuse: by as much as 20% more. Most of the elderly end up addicted to prescription drugs not after trying to get “high”, but rather in an attempt to avoid physical and emotional pain that comes with age. However, the risks associated with prescription drug abuse among the elderly are severe. Most are battling physiological or psychiatric illnesses in their increasing age already and adding a drug addiction to that battle is dangerous.

When you couple prescription drug abuse in the elderly with alcohol abuse in the elderly, and add to that the abuse of over the counter (OTC) drugs, there can be severe adverse reactions. The elderly spend over $500 million yearly on medications. Antihistamines, laxative, caffeine and other OTC medications cause imbalances, especially when combined with alcohol. The side effects of these imbalances due to drug abuse by the elderly can be negative or even fatal.

When considering if an elderly loved one has a substance abuse problem, The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment published a list of symptoms that may indicate alcohol or drug (whether prescribed or OTC) problem:

  • Memory trouble after having a drink or taking a medication
  • Loss of coordination (walking unsteadily, frequent falls)
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Being unsure of yourself
  • Irritability, sadness, depression
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to stay alone much of the time
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty staying in touch with family or friends
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

Sources: nytimes.org, oasas.ny.gov


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