Elderly Drug Abuse on the Rise in the U.S.

30. December 2015

While most people are aware that addiction can affect anyone, and that many of the traditional stereotypes are just that — stereotypes, what you may not realize is that one of the fastest growing populations of addicts is over the age of 65.

Elderly drug abuse has become known as the silent epidemic and is considered to be one of the fastest growing health problems in the country today. This may come as a surprise, but it really shouldn’t. There are a number of reasons why elderly drug abuse is on the rise, let’s take a look at some of them now.

The Elderly and Prescription Drugs

According to the National Institute On Drug Abuse, one alarming fact that plays a big role in the problem is that although persons aged 65 and over only make up 13% of the population, they account for over ⅓ of total outpatient spending on prescription drugs in the U.S. In addition, the Elderly are more likely to remain on prescription medications for a longer period of time, and are also more likely to have more than one prescription. For persons who struggle with cognitive decline such as dementia, Alzheimer’s or simply have become more forgetful, accidental misuse of prescription medications is more likely.


To make matters worse, the problem of elderly drug abuse often goes unnoticed. People, even medical professionals, tend to overlook the signs. Drug abuse is not only underdiagnosed, but also unreported, as most people in this age group are reluctant to admit when they have a problem. With people over age 65, there is still a great deal of stigma attached to drug use, addiction and even asking for help. Addiction is seen often as an issue of willpower or a family problem not to be discussed with outsiders. The generation gap presents a very real barrier to solving this problem.

The prescription medication issue is particularly insidious because it leads to increased health risks and cognitive decline that is often blamed on age or other physical or mental illnesses and conditions. As people age, their body begins to metabolize drugs and even OTC medications differently, adding to the risk.

It’s important to note the difference between substance abuse and misuse. Often, elderly drug abuse is really an issue of misuse. This may mean the person is unaware that they are taking more of the medication than prescribed due to forgetfulness or confusion, or it may mean the person is taking more than prescribed because the medication is no longer addressing the symptoms it was prescribed for.

In the case of elderly drug abuse, the person is knowingly taking more of the drug than is prescribed to achieve euphoria or a sense of well-being. This is abuse.

Seniors may be at a higher risk for opiate or benzodiazepine dependence due to changing metabolism. They may not realize they have developed a dependence on the drug, but just keep taking it to avoid getting sick. Even if they realize they have become dependent, fear and embarrassment may keep them from raising the issue with their medical provider.

The Aging Addict Population

While the over 65 crowd makes up a smaller portion of the population, that percentage is growing every year as baby boomers continue to get older. This is another contributing factor to the elderly drug abuse population. People don’t seem to consider the fact that addicts eventually get older. Without treatment, they continue to use and drink, and eventually reach elderly status.


This means that the growing baby boomer population must come to terms not only with aging, but also with the fact that they may finally need to get help for their substance abuse problem. This is as true for the aging heroin or cocaine addict as it is for the aging beer drinker who has never admitted to having a problem.

Other Factors That Contribute To Elderly Drug Abuse

As people age, illness, retirement, the empty nest and the death of friends or spouses can increase the likelihood of problems like depression, anxiety and insomnia. Isolation can contribute to this. This can prompt an increase in alcohol consumption and an increased reliance on other drugs to help self-medicate.

Seniors And Alcohol Abuse

This is currently the most widespread substance-related problem in this age group. Alcohol has been and continues to be socially acceptable. Alcoholism also goes unreported, undiagnosed and often gets swept under the rug by family members. Ageism plays a part, as people are reluctant to confront their elders about their drinking. Sentiments like “Hey, he’s retired, so what if he drinks too much.” or “So Grandma likes to drink, she’s earned it.” are pervasive. Seniors who have been moderate drinkers most of their lives may not realize that their advancing age means they no longer metabolize alcohol the way they used to, and that they are increasing risks to their health. Again, doctors often miss signs of alcohol abuse because they attribute things like falls, slurred speech or confusion as signs of age or other conditions.

Talking About Elderly Drug Abuse

While it may be uncomfortable to bring up drug or alcohol abuse with a loved one, it is important that you don’t ignore the problem. Contrary to what some believe, elderly drug abuse is treatable. As awareness of this “silent epidemic” grows, so does awareness of the need for increased treatment and prevention of drug abuse and addiction among the aging population. It isn’t easy to confront someone about their substance abuse problem, and it’s even tougher when that person is your elder — perhaps your parent or grandparent.

In cases where denial is strong and your efforts to address the issue have been met with resistance, an elderly drug abuse intervention may be necessary. Addiction is treatable at any age, and quitting using at any age can not only extend life, but also greatly improve quality of life in the short and long-term.

Getting Help With An Elderly Drug Abuse Intervention

If your elderly loved one is struggling with substance abuse and you don’t know what to do, let Intervention Services, Inc. help. A professional intervention can be the catalyst that allows your loved one to get the help they need. Interventions work, and when facilitated by a knowledgeable third party with the help of a loving family, result in a 90% success rate. Call Intervention Services, Inc. today to get your family and your loved one the help they need.