Drug and Substance Use Disorders


Older adults’ bodies change in ways that increase the risk of harmful effects from alcohol or substance use. Older adults are less able to handle the same amount of medications or alcohol that they used to when they were younger.  

Older people are also more likely to have one or more chronic diseases. So, they tend to take more prescription drugs and over-the-counter remedies over time.  These medicines often do not mix well. Or, they may alter the amount of each drug in the body causing more problems.  

Alcohol can make some medications unsafe. Avoid alcohol if you take:

  • Benzodiazepines
  • Anti-depressants
  • Sleeping pills
  • Pain medications
  • Anti-seizure or anti-psychotic medications
  • Antihistamines

Risk Factors

Risk factors for substance abuse problems include:

  • Having a family member with an alcohol problem
  • Being an older adult or white
  • Living alone or being single (separated or divorced)
  • Having mental health problems or overuse of drugs to treat them
  • Having a substance use disorder when younger
  • Having chronic pain or sleep problems and using drugs to treat these problems
  • Having life stresses (financial difficulties, retirement, loss of a spouse or family member, moving to a new home, new illness)
  • Being in the hospital or living in a long-term care facility, like a nursing home
  • Having a long-term smoking habit
  • Not understanding how to take medications and not reporting unwanted medication side effects
  • Having a disability
  • Being bored or having a coping style that avoids problems
  • Not belonging to a religious group

Mental Health Problems

A person who misuses a substance may have an untreated mental health problem. The substance misuse may make the mental health problem worse and harder to treat.

For example, older adults who misuse alcohol are nearly three times more likely to have a mental illness. The risk of dementia, suicide, depression, anxiety, and sleep problems is much greater in older adults who misuse alcohol.

Stopping substance misuse can slow down or even reverse many of these conditions. Memory problems in older adults caused by drinking, such as dementia from chronic alcoholism, can improve if you stop drinking.




Last Update May 2023

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