Substance abuse among those aged 50 or older is a growing health problem in the U.S., affecting up to one-fifth of the total senior population. And because of seniors’ unique health issues, as well as a lack of awareness on both the part of the medical community and the public at large, coming up with solutions to their problems requires more strategizing than for people of other ages.
The Rise of the Senior Population
Census estimates maintain that the senior population will reach 80 million by 2050. Of course, most of that growth is occurring already, as the number of adults over 65 is growing by an average of almost three percent annually. In 1990, 13 percent of Americans were over 65; by 2030, that same group will account for more than 20 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the U. S. Bureaus of the Census.
Seniors and Drug Abuse
The Woodstock generation’s attitude toward illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin is looser than those of previous generations, who largely never considered such substances for recreational consumption. Still, the senior who is still snorting cocaine or shooting heroin is extremely rare, due to the fact that lifelong users of such drugs rarely make it past age 40, let alone 65. And while further research is needed on the physiological effects of marijuana on older adults in order to draw any reliable conclusions, many children of the 1960s are expected to carry their taste for marijuana into their senior years.
While prescription drug abuse has in recent years been on the rise overall, seniors’ abuse of prescription drug is relatively low. According to the AARP Public Policy Institute Analysis of the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 3.4 percent of adults between the ages of 50 and 64 were shown to have abused painkillers, including opioids, while just over 1 percent of those over 65 abused painkillers. Of course, the potential for prescription drug abuse remains high for seniors, since seniors use more prescription drugs than any other group.
Also, the effects of painkillers like opioids grow more dangerous with the age of the user. The use of opioids and other painkillers increases the risk of falling, delirium, fractures, and pneumonia. This dynamic of “lesser prevalence but greater risk” among seniors is the same for tranquilizers, stimulants, and sedatives.
Seniors and Alcoholism
A variety of factors can contribute to substance abuse, particularly alcoholism, in the elderly. As a person ages, he or she might be forced to deal with major life changes along with the depressing prospect of seeing and feeling their health deteriorate. Life changes like “empty nest syndrome,” living with a chronic condition like hearing loss or diabetes, and boredom brought on by retirement or lack of socialization, can factor into seniors’ alcohol abuse.
A December 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that older adults have experienced a 106 percent increase in alcohol use disorders, a trend that may constitute a public health crisis. Of course, the health problems of alcohol abuse are exacerbated when paired with multiple medications that interact adversely with alcohol.
Challenges at the Medical Level
The tracking of alcohol and drug abuse among seniors is a new area of research. Many in the field suggest it’s possible the criteria used to diagnose substance abuse among seniors is inadequate. Factors like ageism—society’s prejudices when it comes to seniors, including seniors’ attitudes about themselves—can hinder the success of effective treatment for seniors.
There is the assumption that treatment of seniors is a waste of medical and financial resources. As a result, a senior’s loved ones often allow increasing drug and alcohol abuse to go untreated.
Meanwhile, a diagnosis of drug or alcohol abuse can be difficult for medical practitioners, since symptoms of substance abuse in older individuals often mimic the symptoms of other medical and behavioral problems common among seniors, like diabetes, dementia, and depression. And increasing time constraints on medical professionals’ time doesn’t help.
With the senior population expected to rise over the next two decades, the medical community, the general public, and the senior population itself must adjust its approach when it comes to substance abuse.
Treatment at JourneyPure at the River
If you or a loved one suffers from a chronic substance abuse problem, please contact us today at 615-900-2444. We offer medically-assisted detox services, individual and group counseling, and experiential therapies. Our friendly and knowledgeable staff is ready for you to get healthy and stay healthy.
Chris Clancy is the in-house Content Manager for JourneyPure’s Digital Marketing team, where he gets to explore a wide variety of substance abuse- and mental health-related topics. He has more than 20 years’ experience as a journalist and researcher, with strong working knowledge of hospital systems, health insurance, content strategy, and public relations. He lives in Nashville with his wife and two kids.