Older Adults and Substance Abuse Awareness

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Alice Pomidor, MD, MPH, AGSF
Florida State University School of Medicine

Mary Palmer, PhD, RN, FAAN, AGSF
Helen W. and Thomas L. Umphlet Distinguished Professor in Aging
UNC School of Nursing

It’s been called the “invisible epidemic.” In recent years, for the first time, the number of older adults receiving treatment for substance abuse is outpacing that of younger adults.

There are many reasons why the number of older adults who are receiving treatment for substance abuse is on the rise. With aging come very real challenges that can make some older adults more likely to abuse alcohol or drugs.

Job loss, either through retirement or downsizing, caretaking for (or losing) a spouse, children moving away, illness, and financial worries are among the challenges older adults can face. What’s more, some older adults have had had lifelong problems with alcohol or drugs that can become more serious as they age.

What is Substance Abuse?

Substance abuse is an umbrella term that means misusing legal or illegal medications and drugs, as well as misusing alcohol and tobacco. Officially, substance abuse is the use of chemicals that lead to an increased risk of problems and an inability to control your use of the substance.

Addiction, dependence, or “getting hooked” on a drug or alcohol can have especially dangerous consequences for older adults. These substances can cause mental problems, kidney and liver disease, and can cause falls resulting in injuries. Even if you’ve never had a problem with alcohol or drugs, you can become dependent on them in your later years.

Because many older adults manage more than one chronic illness, they may take one or more medications that can interact harmfully. The drugs you take may also react badly with alcohol. The symptoms you may experience as a result may seem to you like typical signs of aging, such as confusion, forgetfulness, dizziness, or sleepiness. In fact, symptoms like these may be reactions due to substance abuse. Continue reading