American Seniors Struggling with Growing Rates of Drug and Alcohol Addiction

senior taking pills

While most media attention is understandably on the teens and young adults who are struggling with addiction or even losing their lives, seniors constitute another group of Americans who suffer similar problems. In multiple news stories over the last year, it’s seen that seniors are more likely than ever before to have problems with alcohol abuse, marijuana use or addiction to painkillers or other pills.

Those in their 60s up to early 70s were young adults in those years that drug use became far more acceptable – even the norm in some circles. As they age and suffer the loss of friends and loved ones and experience more pain and illness, some have few qualms about turning to addictive substances to ease grief, loss, isolation, and boredom. Others simply expect a medical doctor to have their best interests at heart and take prescribed medications without question. But tolerance to painkillers or other drugs can lead them to need more pills to cope, finally resulting in their taking more pills than prescribed.

One rehab professional noted that if he, as a middle-aged man, went to a doctor complaining of back pain, he might be referred to physical therapy or other treatment. But if a senior goes to a doctor with back pain, she is more likely to go home not only with an opiate painkiller but also an anti-anxiety medication as well – a combination that makes the possibility of overdose far more likely.

How Much Have the Numbers Changed?

In 2011, a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration compared the rate of illicit drug abuse by those in their 50s with the rate in 2002. They found that the rate of illicit drug use increased from 2.7% to 6.3% in this age group. Alcohol comes in first, followed by marijuana, prescription drugs used non-medically and then cocaine. Prescription drugs most likely to be abused included anti-anxiety drugs like Klonopin, sleep aids like Ambien and painkillers like OxyContin.

The number of 50-and-older people addicted to these substances is predicted to double between 2002 and 2020, from 2.8 million to 5.7 million.

Older people may process drugs differently than younger people because of age-related or illness-related problems with kidneys, the liver or other organs. So for them, drug abuse is even more dangerous than for the young. The number of seniors arriving in emergency rooms to get help after misusing a prescription drug has increased 50% between 2007 and 2011.

What Needs to be Done?

In fact, seniors should not be treated any differently than younger people when it comes to prescribing pain medication or anti-anxiety drugs. Other alternatives should be looked at first, such as looking for underlying health conditions that can be alleviated or recommending nutritional or exercise changes.

Sons and daughters of seniors should monitor the pill consumption of their parents, even to the point of doing pill counts if it’s needed. If a senior is taking more pills than recommended and her (or his) body is not breaking down and clearing the drugs efficiently, she could become quite confused and less alert and wind up taking more pills than she realizes.

Of course, the other action that is needed is drug rehabilitation for those who have gotten trapped in their reliance on alcohol, pills or marijuana. Unnecessary drug use, overuse of alcohol or use of illicit drugs reduces the quality of life at any age. No one deserves to have the brightness of life taken away by drug or alcohol abuse.

There is no discrimination by age at Narconon centers around the world. From 18 to 75 and up, it’s possible to achieve a bright new future, free from substance abuse, at Narconon centers in the US, Russia, Italy, Taiwan and other countries. For help with a beloved senior family member, call Narconon for help.



Sue Birkenshaw

Sue has worked in the addiction field with the Narconon network for three decades. She has developed and administered drug prevention programs worldwide and worked with numerous drug rehabilitation centers over the years. Sue is also a fine artist and painter, who enjoys traveling the world which continues to provide unlimited inspiration for her work. You can follow Sue on Twitter, or connect with her on LinkedIn.