Primary Care

Substance use in older adults

People Attending Self Help Meeting

Information from the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows alarming trends among older adults in the U.S.:

As of 2018, nearly 1 million adults aged 65 and older have a drug or an alcohol addiction, also known as a substance use disorder.
Alcohol is the most used drug among older adults, with one study finding a 107% increase in alcohol addiction among adults aged 65 and older from 2001 to 2013.
Opioid use disorder treatment among people aged 55 and older increased nearly 54% between 2013 and 2015.
Cannabis use among adults aged 65 and older rose from 0.4% in 2006-2007 to 2.9% in 2015-2016.

“It’s long been thought that alcohol and drug use decrease as we age,” says Jennifer A. Keith, FNP, with Riverside Primary Care Kiln Creek. “While this may have been true in the past, the numbers are different for adults of the baby boomer generation.”

Why are baby boomers using alcohol and drugs more?

Born between 1946 and 1964, baby boomers often have a more easygoing attitude toward alcohol and drugs than the generations that came before them.

“This is the generation of the 1960s, counterculture and Woodstock. Later they broke free from social taboos embracing disco and Studio 54,” Ms. Keith explains.

She says this more relaxed attitude is likely part of the reason why alcohol and drug addiction is high among older adults in the U.S. But it’s not the only reason.

“Getting older has its challenges,” says Ms. Keith. “Our kids leave the nest, we learn we have health problems, our spouse passes away – these are stressful events, and alcohol or drugs can seem like a good way to cope with it all.”

The costs of substance use in your golden years

Substance abuse is a serious health problem no matter your age, but it’s especially risky for older adults.

First, long-term alcohol and drug abuse is associated with a wide range of physical and mental health issues, including cancer, liver disease, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, sleep problems and depression.

Even if an alcohol or drug problem is relatively new, older adults are more vulnerable to the negative consequences of their use. 

“As we age, our bodies take longer to metabolize – or break down – what we consume,” Ms. Keith explains. “This means that, as we get older, drugs and alcohol can stay in our systems longer and affect us more.”

Additionally, substance abuse can worsen common age-related health problems such as memory loss and heart disease. It can also put you at a greater risk for debilitating accidents and falls.

When is alcohol and drug use a problem?

Drug use is considered a problem if you can’t stop using the drug even though you know it’s hurting you. 

When it comes to alcohol, the new Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate or non-excessive drinking as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. By their definition, a “drink” equals about:

12 ounces of 5% alcohol content beer – 1.5 cups
5 ounces of 12% alcohol content wine – about 2/3 of a cup
1.5 ounces of 80 proof distilled spirits — 3 tablespoons

Many people think they’re drinking just one or two drinks when, in fact, they’re drinking more than the recommended amount. If you’re not sure how much you’re drinking every week, pour yourself your usual amount, then pour that into a liquid measuring cup and write down the fluid ounces. Keep a journal of your alcohol consumption for several weeks to see where you stand.

Get help now.

If you’re struggling with alcohol or drug addiction, talk to a trusted loved one or health care provider today. Your health and quality of life will improve with the right treatment.

Even if you don’t think you have an addiction, it’s still important to be honest with your primary care provider about your drug and alcohol use.

“Dangerous drug to drug interactions can happen if you’re taking multiple medications and using alcohol and other drugs,” says Ms. Keith. “With an honest, full picture of your drug use, we can help prevent that.”

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