Why Addiction Among Older Adults Can Be Harder To Spot

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Addiction is often discussed in regard to its effect on young adults or even teenagers. However, there is a growing rate of substance abuse among older adults. It’s never too late to recover from addiction, and there are support services designed to help older adults.

Why Addiction Among Older Adults Can Be Harder To Spot

Much of the health care research dedicated to drug addiction and alcohol use disorder focuses on younger adults. However, the rate of substance abuse among older adults is markedly climbing.

There are 55.8 million American adults ages 65 and older living in the U.S. today. This demographic makes up 16.8% of the U.S. population.

At least 1.8% of adults in this age group experience drug or alcohol abuse, equating to 1 million people.

Referred to as the “invisible epidemic,” there are several reasons why substance abuse among this cohort is more difficult to detect.

Substances Most Abused By Older Adults

Past patterns of low rates of substance abuse among older adults have created a misconception that this cohort does not experience addiction.

However, current data shows that at least 1 million older adults have a substance use disorder (SUD), and the actual figure is believed to be higher.

The majority of older adults with addiction issues abuse alcohol. About 11% of adults ages 65 and older report binge drinking.

Illicit drug use among older American adults is also higher than any other country worldwide. At least 3.1% of adults ages 50 and older abuse illicit drugs, predominantly cannabis.

Older adults also commonly abuse prescription drugs, though the exact figure is unknown. The most-commonly abused prescription medications among this cohort are benzodiazepines and opioids.

Between 2013 and 2015 alone, the number of adults ages 55 and older seeking treatment for opioid use disorder increased by 54%. During this period, the prevalence of heroin use among this cohort more than doubled.

Reasons Why Addiction Among Aging Adults May Be Overlooked

Older adults, especially those who are retired, are more likely to live an isolated lifestyle. Coupled with the normal signs of aging, this may make it easier to miss signs of addiction.

Normal Signs Of Aging

Depending on a person’s symptoms, it can be easy to mistake signs of substance abuse for normal signs of aging or the effects of existing health conditions.

As people age, it’s common to experience an increase in health problems, such as mental and neurological impairment, reduced mobility, and sleeping problems.

These common health issues are also signs of worsening substance abuse, particularly among older adults, as drugs and alcohol are known to have a more severe effect on the body as people age.

Substance abuse also worsens conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and dementia. If health care providers are unaware of addiction issues, these conditions may be mistakenly attributed to aging.


More than 20% of adults ages 60 and older live with mental or neurological disorders. These disorders contribute to 6.6% of all disabilities among this cohort.

Aside from diagnosed disorders, older adults also experience a range of life changes that can create stress and motivate them to seek relief from substances.

Stressors may include the loss of a loved one, family conflicts, financial worries, housing changes, a loss of mobility, and more.

Compounding stressors can lead to or worsen existing mental health disorders and increase a person’s risk for substance abuse problems.


Many adults with addictions conceal their substance use in order to function in the workplace. Entering retirement, however, brings forth a lack of oversight, which can exacerbate use.

With retirement, there are often fewer people who are privy to the mental and/or behavioral effects of a person’s substance use, which may make the person less inclined to stop using substances.

Retirement also introduces more free time, and some people may fill their time with substance use to keep them preoccupied. Boredom is also a contributor to substance abuse.


Older adults tend to partake in fewer out-of-home activities as they age, regardless of substance use.

Functional impairments and a loss of independence in different aspects, like driving, can exacerbate isolation.

Loneliness, in itself, is a contributor to substance abuse. Some older adults may use substances as a way to cope with loneliness and their inability to live the life they used to.

Generational Differences

Older adults today herald from the baby boomer generation. Born between 1946 and 1964, this generation represents a time when the perception of drugs and drug use was changing.
Perhaps due in part to more of an open mind toward drug use, baby boomers report higher rates of substance use.

For example, about 4.2% of adults ages 65 and older reported using marijuana in 2018, up from 2.4% in 2015. This increased usage may also reflect changing laws regarding the use of weed.

Signs Of Substance Abuse In Older Adults

When a person is experiencing a drug or alcohol addiction, there are usually telltale physical and/or behavioral side effects that family members, friends, or caregivers may notice.

Warning signs of substance use disorder (SUD) in older adults include:

  • bloodshot or glossy eyes
  • pupils that are pinhole-sized or oversized
  • shakiness or tremors
  • slurred speech
  • uncharacteristic mood swings, i.e., paranoia, fear, aggression, giddiness, etc.
  • increased anxiety or depression
  • memory loss
  • reduced concern for personal appearance and/or hygiene
  • insomnia
  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • increased isolation
  • increase in falls, bruises, or burns

Again, these signs may be mistakenly attributed to aging, allowing an SUD to go unnoticed in an older adult.

Older Adults Most At Risk

Statistically, some older adults face a higher risk of abusing alcohol or drugs in their later years than others.

Risk factors that increase the likelihood of substance abuse among this cohort include:

  • being of the baby boomer generation
  • Caucasian ethnicity
  • being male for alcohol use and being female for prescription drug misuse
  • having a disability
  • living alone
  • long-term chronic pain
  • a history of substance abuse or mental illness
  • having lost a spouse
  • a higher income/savings
  • recently retired unexpectedly or laid-off

How To Support Older Adults With Addiction Issues

The good news is that addiction treatment is known to have a more positive effect on older people compared to younger people.

Many older adults view substances as their “one last pleasure” in life. Medical professionals should ask older patients about substance use in a non-judgmental way so as to avoid stigmatization and prevent defensiveness.

Substance Abuse Treatment For Older Adults

Most detox, inpatient treatment, and outpatient treatment programs accept adults of all ages. However, there are treatment options that specialize in the recovery of adults aged 50 and older.

Treatment centers for older adults are designed to support medical and emotional needs, while ensuring their comfort throughout.

Talk Therapy

Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and family therapy, is one way that older adults can seek help for substance abuse.

Therapy can help people identify the root of their addiction.

Addiction is often a family disease, so involving other family members in care can allow everyone to collectively participate in the healing journey.

Peer-Led Support Groups

Older adults experiencing addiction may attend peer recovery groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to connect with people with similar experiences.

These groups promote recovery through peer reliance and support, and cohesively reduce the shame and stigma that is often associated with addiction.

Get Help For Substance Abuse Today

If you or a loved one is dealing with drug or alcohol addiction, contact DetoxRehabs.net and get connected to a treatment center today.



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