Health Risks and the Unique Challenges of Addiction in Older Adults

Understanding Addiction in Older Adults

Substance use disorders are complex diseases that can come from a combination of problems including physical, psychological, social, behavioral, and emotional issues. For individuals in retirement age and above, some of the biggest reasons for substance abuse that leads to addiction include:

  • Significant life changes, like the death of loved ones or friends, or moving into assisted living
  • Family problems or loneliness 
  • Undiagnosed mental health disorders 
  • Chronic pain due to surgeries or health problems

Individuals may begin using drugs and alcohol to cope with pain, boredom, or sadness, as a form of self-medication, Today, substance use disorder due to prescription medication abuse and alcohol misuse is all too common in older adults, and illicit drug use among adults aged 65 and older is also on the rise. 

When it comes to addiction in older adults, there are health risks involved that younger individuals may not be as concerned about. Along with addiction, these substances can cause serious health problems, even in the healthiest individual, but when the person already has a compromised immune system, health problems like cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, or undiagnosed mental health concerns, these problems can worsen. 


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Alcohol Consumption and Health Outcomes in Seniors

While every age range has a percentage of the population who develops alcohol-related problems, the number spikes over 50, with more adults aged 55 to 75 binge drinking than ever before, resulting in alcohol use disorder, as well as serious health issues. The rates of emergency department visits for older adults due to acute and chronic alcohol use have increased, with more women than men requiring medical intervention. 

Alcohol-Related Health Risks for the Elderly

Some serious alcohol-related health risks for elderly individuals include:

  • Greater risk of developing several types of mouth, throat, head, and breast cancer 
  • Liver damage
  • Immune disorders
  • Worsening of conditions like osteoporosis, diabetes, ulcers, and high blood pressure
  • Greater risk of stroke
  • Memory loss and cognitive impairment 
  • Development or worsening of pre-existing mood disorders, anxiety, depression, etc. 
  • Disguise symptoms of Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, and other serious health concerns
  • Risk of serious complications or death by drinking while taking certain medications 
  • Greater risk of falls and accidents due to impaired coordination and judgment
  • Greater risk of suicide 

Gender Differences in Substance Abuse Among Seniors

When it comes to alcohol abuse, men as a whole are much more likely to abuse alcohol than women are, but when it comes to older people, women have been increasingly binge drinking more than men. A study done by the National Institute of Health posits that this may be because women as a whole tend to outlive their spouses, which can lead to depression, loneliness, and self-medication.

In a recent study done at Oxford University, it was found that older women are often prescribed prescription medications with addictive properties (i.e. oxycodone, Xanax, etc.), and they tend to abuse these substances and develop addiction nearly three times as often as their male counterparts. Doctors tend not to detect or treat these issues promptly, often misdiagnosing them as other mental health or physical problems. 

The Challenge of Diagnosing Addiction in Older Adults

Diagnosing addiction in older adults can be difficult, as the symptoms of many substance use disorders mimic other health problems. Doctors who are not well-versed in addiction may attribute cognitive decline, lack of motivation, low coordination, social withdrawal, or low physical health to a mental illness or just call it a part of getting old. 

older adults with addiction

Along with these problems, even if a senior have realized for themself that they may need help addressing their addiction, they may lack the finances to afford care, or they may live in a place without many treatment options and can no longer drive themselves safely. Some older adults are no longer in contact with family and don’t have a strong support system in place that they can turn to, and they may feel shame or stigma surrounding their disorder. 

Treatment Options for Older Adults with Addiction

There are a variety of treatment options for older adults with substance use disorder. For most people, treatment begins with an in-depth assessment, which will include a physical exam and a mental health screening. This will help the care team involved in your treatment plan decide what types of therapy, health care, and other treatments will be most beneficial to you. They will also discuss your history of substance use, your preferences, and your goals for treatment, to ensure you’re getting what you want out of your time in rehab. 

The next step will likely be medical detox. Alcohol and drugs can cause severe withdrawal symptoms, which are often exacerbated by age. Staying in a safe medical facility, with the option for helpful medications and holistic treatments will ensure you do not suffer, and that you’re safe and healthy as you begin the addiction treatment process. 

Once you’re ready to move on from detox, you will either enter an inpatient treatment program or an outpatient plan. Inpatient care is residential, meaning you will live inside the treatment center full-time, with structured days filled with therapy, healthy living programming, medical care, and more. Outpatient programs, on the other hand, allow you to live outside of the treatment center. You can stay at home, or move into a sober living facility, and come in for therapy, doctor’s appointments, groups, classes, and more. In all levels of care, you will likely have some or all of the following treatments:

  • Medication and pain management support 
  • Evidence-based therapy programs
  • Holistic healing programs
  • Exercise and nutritional counseling 
  • Acute medical care as needed
  • Long-term planning, support, and case management
  • Group therapy, community healing, and support group meetings
  • Family therapy or couple’s therapy
  • Aftercare with relapse prevention planning 

Preventive Measures and Educational Outreach

Addiction in older adults is preventable, and it is also treatable. Increasing the overall public’s understanding of what alcohol use disorder looks like and how to get help is as important as providing treatment for those with addiction. Not everybody with an alcohol issue is falling drunk in the streets like a cartoon character. Many people who have a few drinks every night to “wind down” or people to binge drink socially a few days per week are just as at risk of addiction as those who sit at the bar for hours on end. Nobody is immune to addiction, and knowing the signs can ensure you know what to look for in your friends and loved ones. 

WhiteSands Treatment Can Help People Overcome Addiction in Older Adults

At WhiteSands, we are dedicated to our patients’ health, wellness, and comfort during every step of their treatment. We offer comprehensive, tailored care programs to each person, with every level of care available, from inpatient detox through to long-term outpatient aftercare. You will always have the support you need when you need it. 

If you or a loved one is dealing with a substance use disorder and need help, please contact WhiteSands today to find out more about our luxury treatment programs, and how we can help you get the care you need. Whether you’re wondering about costs and whether insurance will cover your stay, or have more questions about how we treat addiction in older adults, we are happy to speak with you about your options and help you make an informed decision. 

If you or a loved one needs help with abuse and/or treatment, please call the WhiteSands Treatment at (877) 855-3470. Our addiction specialists can assess your recovery needs and help you get the addiction treatment that provides the best chance for your long-term recovery.

About the Author

Jackie has been involved in the substance abuse and addiction treatment sector for over five years and this is something that she is truly eager about. She has a passion for writing and continuously works to create informative pieces that not only educate and inform the public about the disease of addiction but also provide solutions for those who struggle with drug and alcohol abuse.