Nearly 1 million adults ages 65 and older are living with a substance use disorder, such as addiction to prescription medicines, nicotine or alcohol, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
“It’s a cause of concern because our bodies and minds become more fragile with age,” says Nancy Irwin, Psy.D., a Los Angeles-based clinical licensed psychologist at Seasons in Malibu, a recovery center in California. “Reflexes are slower and balance is more challenging, so accidents, slips and falls are more common.”
Alcohol is the most commonly used drug among those 65 and older. About 65% of people in that age group report engaging in high-risk drinking, according to NIDA. Specifically, more than a tenth of adults in that group say they binge drink, which means consuming at least five drinks during a period of about two hours for men and at least four drinks in that same timeframe for women.
“None of us can drink like we did in our 20s,” says Dr. irwin “Alcoholism is on a continuum, and many who have been able to drink socially during their youth and middle years find their consumption levels rise [as they age],” for reasons like the loss of a partner or struggling to adjust to an empty nest.
Alcohol can be dangerous when mixed with certain prescriptions and over-the-counter medicines. What’s more, alcohol use disorder can lead to chronic health issues, such as high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, memory issues and mood disorders.
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Older adults tend to be prescribed more medications than younger people, which can present a variety of problems. “Seniors have a higher chance of mixing, overusing or abusing their medication,” says Chaye McIntosh, the New Jersey-based clinical director of outpatient services at ChoicePoint, which provides addiction treatment programs. “This [tendency] could be due to age-associated dementia, lack of proper care or personal neglect.” Not to mention, she says, some older adults might combine their medication with alcohol, “which can enhance their effects and pave the way for addiction.”
Misusing prescription medication can lead to serious problems. According to a 2019 study including patients over age 50, more than 25% of those who misused prescription opioids or benzodiazepines experienced suicidal ideation, or wishes to die. Only 2% of those who didn’t use such drugs experienced suicidal ideation.