Senior Living Care Blog

Substance Abuse Among Older Adults

Posted by Joe Gilmore on Jul 4, 2019 11:00:00 AM


As the geriatric population in the country continues to grow year after year, many older adults are starting to suffer from substance abuse at higher rates. According to one study published in Clinics in Geriatric Medicine, the older population in the country is expected to increase from 40.3 million to 72.1 million in the 20-year period between 2010 and 2030.


Meanwhile, substance abuse, including drugs and alcohol, is rising among the older population. Generally, older adults seem to use alcohol and drugs with less frequency than younger individuals.


Substance Abuse and Seniors



A glass of wine in a grass field. Many older adults are beginning to suffer from substance abuse

Despite the rising rates of illicit and prescription medication among senior citizens, alcohol is still the most commonly used substance among older adults. It is estimated that about 1.5 percent of the older population deal with alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence. With that said, at-risk drinking is more prevalent among older adults than alcohol use disorder and is likely to impact and harm a larger share of the older population in the United States.


It should be noted that as we age, our body’s tolerance for alcohol drops. Older people generally experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than they did when they were younger. This puts older adults at an increased risk for a number of alcohol-related problems including falls, car crashes, and other unintentional injuries.


Meanwhile, certain health problems are common in older adults and drinking alcohol will only make these problems worse. Some of these health problems include diabetes, high blood pressure, liver problems, osteoporosis, memory problems, and more.


Guidelines provided by a number of sources including the American Geriatrics Society and the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that older adults drink no more than seven standard drinks per week.



Tobacco use is fairly prevalent among older adults. According to one study, about 14 percent of seniors reported using tobacco in the last 12 months. In general, seniors who smoke tend to be long-term, heavy smokers who are dependent on nicotine.


Fortunately, even for lifetime smokers, it is never too late to quit. The good thing about quitting is that you will almost immediately feel the positive benefits. Event by quitting in your 60's and 70's will help lead to improved cardiovascular health, less coughing, lower chance of heart attack and stroke, lower chance of cancer and other illnesses, and improved breathing.


Illicit Substance Use

According to the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use, revealed that rates of past month use of illicit substances doubled on average between 2002 and 2012.


Prescription Medication

Prescription medication taken by an individual. Prescription drugs can easily lead to substance abuse if not managed properly.

Older adults take more prescribed and over-the-counter drugs than younger adults, this essentially increases the risk of misuse and abuse of these types of drugs. One study found that about 37 percent of men and 36 percent of women used at least five different types of prescription medications concurrently.


Benzodiazepines are the most commonly prescribed psychiatric medication among all adults and the rates of benzodiazepine use among older adults ranged from 15 to 32 percent.


Senior Vulnerabilities

As mentioned before, as we age, older individuals become more susceptible and vulnerable to harmful effects associated with drugs or alcohol. As one ages, percentages of lean body mass and total body water decrease, and the liver’s ability to process alcohol weakens, this causes an increased sensitivity to alcohol in the brain.


Seniors will experience higher levels of blood alcohol concentration and increased impairment and drunkenness compared to younger adults even at equivalent or similar consumption levels.


Meanwhile, when it comes to illicit drugs and medications, the same biological changes that cause the increased effects of alcohol also increase the effects of these types of drugs as well. Older adults who are prescribed benzodiazepines and opiates will experience different effects than younger adults. These types of drugs should be prescribed and taken with caution as they can lead to a number of different negative health effects and addiction.


It is also important to note that many senior citizens may be misusing their prescriptions on accident. There are a number of things that can impede a person’s ability to accurately take their medications. For example, if a senior is suffering from issues related to Alzheimer’s or dementia, they may forget that they have taken their medication earlier in the day and accidentally take two doses. Overall, many seniors may be taking their medications incorrectly which poses a serious risk to their overall health and can lead to issues like addiction.



In the United States, and globally, marijuana is becoming more and more accepted as a form of medication and even as a recreational substance. With that said, marijuana poses unique risks for the geriatric population. For example, marijuana is known to lead to problems associated with short-term memory, increased heart rate, and a 4-time increased risk of heart attack after the first hour of smoking. These risks become even more prevalent among older adults who may already be dealing with cognitive and cardiovascular problems.


Next Steps

Substance abuse is becoming more and more of a problem among the senior population. And, as the population continues to grow, it will only continue. Unfortunately, many seniors may be misusing their medications without even knowing it. Problems like Alzheimer’s and dementia can interfere with a person’s ability to properly take their medication and can lead them to overusing them. Obviously, this is a problem that will likely require the help of a caregiver or assisted living facility. Luckily, there are a number of assisted living facilities that can help.


Landmark Senior Living is one organization that is dedicated to providing your loved one with the quality of care that they deserve at this stage in their lives. Landmark has a caring staff and care options in place to provide your loved one with anything they might need during their stay at our facility. If you are interested in learning more about Landmark Senior Living, the care options we provide, and how we can help, please visit our website and reach out to schedule a complimentary walkthrough of one of our assisted living facilities in West Springfield.


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Topics: Senior Health

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