When it comes to substance abuse it’s usually teens and young adults we think of—people who are experimenting with drugs and get addicted, or perhaps older adults who become alcoholics. But there’s a growing problem that’s altogether different, and it’s not teens and young or middle-aged adults at risk: it’s people in the senior age group, those who are 65 or over, and are becoming dependent on prescription medications or alcohol.
Problems relating to drug abuse and alcohol addiction are among the fastest-growing issues for seniors. Alcohol is the most common substance of abuse for people aged 65 or over; however, people in this age group also use more prescription and over-the-counter medications than any other age group in the country. Up to 23% of medications prescribed to seniors are benzodiazepines—highly addictive drugs typically prescribed for insomnia or anxiety.
While these two issues are themselves potentially dangerous, it can get worse. For seniors who use both alcohol and benzodiazepines, the risk of addiction and abuse is much higher. Additionally, alcohol makes the effects of these medications more potent, and older people tend to feel the effects of both alcohol and medications more strongly. The end result is a much greater risk of health problems stemming from use of alcohol or medications, and a much greater risk of injury as a result of accidents that occur while under their effects. For example, seniors who mix alcohol and prescription medications are at risk of problems such as stomach bleeding, organ damage, high blood pressure, and memory loss. They also face a higher risk of depression and stroke.
Up to 23% of medications prescribed to seniors are benzodiazepines—highly addictive drugs typically prescribed for insomnia or anxiety.
Despite these health risks, many seniors remain unaware of the potential problems they face through overuse of alcohol and prescription medications. And many healthcare professionals don’t adequately check for substance abuse problems when they see their senior patients. Part of the problem is that physicians simply don’t expect to see these kinds of issues in older patients, and they therefore fail to pick up on the signs of drug or alcohol abuse and addiction.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, up to 17% of seniors may be abusing alcohol or drugs. More alarming is the fact that SAMHSA expects this figure to double by 2020. To learn more about this issue, and what might be done to help seniors with substance abuse problems, see this article at Recovery.org.