The Hidden Addiction Risk for Seniors

A group of people that don’t receive a lot of attention in America’s addiction crisis is people over fifty. It is somehow often assumed that older adults are not susceptible to substance use disorders with all the headlines focused on people in their twenties overdosing on opioids. 

“Senior drug users were an unnoticed marginal group in the past,” wrote Birgit Koechl, Annemarie Unger, and Gabriele Fischer in a 2012 study about age-related aspects of addiction. “However, based on sociodemographic development, older individuals with addiction problems are becoming a very important group, especially considering the expected increase in numbers over the next decade. The elderly are currently under-represented in clinical trials in this field and in evidence-based treatment recommendations.” With ever-increasing numbers in that cohort, “age-related aspects of addiction are an increasingly important public health challenge due to an incremental number of affected individuals.”

“Older adults are abusing drugs, getting arrested for drug offenses and dying from drug overdoses at increasingly higher rates,” reported the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “These surges have come as the 76 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, reach late middle age. Facing the pains and losses connected to aging, boomers, who as youths used drugs at the highest rates of any generation, are once again—or still—turning to drugs.”

This time around their aging body's ability to metabolize drugs has declined, however. Steve Bartels, the director of the Dartmouth Centers for Health and Aging, told AARP, an organization that addresses issues affecting older Americans, that "older adults who may be abusing marijuana, cocaine, or other drugs are sensitive to smaller amounts than when they were younger. The problem is, they don't know that. So they get into trouble—motor vehicle accidents, domestic incidents—at much lower levels of use."

There is little effort to raise awareness in that cohort. Elisha Figueroa of JBS International told Addiction Professional that prevention, in particular, has historically been overlooked in the older adult population. “Many of our efforts and strategies have been focused on youth and their parents, and that’s a great population to focus on. But what we know from some of the emerging data is that some of the older adult population also is beginning to use at a higher rate and that there are prevention efforts we can put into place to address that.”

They are facing stressful life events and transitions that other age groups might not have. “For instance, if you think about an older adult, they often are at the end of their career, retiring or adjusting to retirement, which is a huge life change,” Figueroa said. “We also know that many move out of their family homes and downsize into smaller homes, or maybe even move into a different neighborhood or town, which changes their support system. Their children have grown up and moved away if they have children. Their health is declining. They’re experiencing the death of friends, family members, or maybe even their spouse. All of those are huge life transitions that are occurring during this period of time that will contribute significantly to substance use.” 

What considerations should treatment providers keep in mind when working with older adults? “One consideration is the context of the whole person,” Angie Jones of JBS International.  “There are these life events and transitions, so being cognizant of them is one thing. Another big thing is that their body chemistry is changing. What used to be an acceptable amount of a substance like alcohol, your body can’t break it down like it used to when it’s 65 or older. There are different drinking guidelines for you when you’re older. It’s important for older adults to understand and that practitioners train them and help them understand that their tolerance is less than it used to be.” 

People with a substance use problem should seek treatment—at any age! Addiction treatment is more complicated at the moment but the Farley team will continue to help people with substance use disorder to the best of their ability, even under these unprecedented circumstances. People in active addiction ready to go into recovery should not delay seeking treatment for their disease as they face elevated health risks.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance misuse but you are unsure what addiction treatment services are available at the moment, please contact The Farley Center at 800.582.6066 to find out about your options.