According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction is defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by drug-seeking behavior in spite of the negative consequences associated with substance abuse.1 People often associate drug abuse and addiction with teens and young adults, especially as they enter high school and college.
Drug abuse is no respecter of age, and addiction can strike at any time a person misuses drugs or alcohol.
Adults may begin taking drugs after an injury or surgery and find themselves struggling with addiction. Teens may experiment with drugs because of peer pressure. College students may take drugs or binge drink to deal with life’s challenges. That’s why addiction can become an issue at every age and stage of life. Understanding the nature of the disease and how it typically begins in each age group can help you or a loved one avoid problems before they begin or recognize them and get help.
Drug Addiction Basics
Drug addiction is considered a brain disorder because it causes changes to neurotransmitters in that are responsible for pleasure, reward and self-control.1 Because addiction is a disease of the brain, the person who struggles is no longer able to make good decisions about substances once tolerance develops.
Tolerance to drugs happens when the body becomes used the drug of choice and needs of the substance to achieve the same level of experience, including pain relief. Once tolerance is an issue, drug dependence isn’t far behind.
Along with needing more of the drug, symptoms of drug addiction include the following:
- Becoming preoccupied with getting and using the drug
- Needing a supply of the drug on hand at all times
- Going into debt or spending money you don’t have to get and use the drug
- Needing more of the drug before the next dose is due
- The appearance of withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped
- Engaging in illegal behaviors, like stealing, to get and use the drug
- Participating in dangerous behavior, like driving, while under the influence of the drug
- Withdrawing from friends and family members and changes in personality, like mood swings, manic stages and depression
- Changes in physical appearance, especially in the area of personal hygiene.
- Becoming more involved in the drug culture and spending less time doing favorite activities2
Substance abuse can happen at any time in a person’s life. Knowing the signs of trouble and reaching out for help is the best way to prevent addiction.
Addiction and Children
Studies show the earlier a person has their first encounter with drugs or alcohol, the more likely he or she is to develop addiction at a later age.3 According to the 2017 Monitoring the Future Survey, alcohol continues to be the most popular drug among teens, with marijuana use coming in second. The survey reported that despite recent declines in overall use, by the end of high school six out of every ten students have consumed alcohol — more than just a few sips — and a quarter of those by 8th grade.
Nearly half of 12th grade students and one in eleven 8th graders reported being drunk at least once in their life in 2017.
The study also showed that marijuana prevalence among teenagers rose annually by 1.3 percent, with 10 percent of 8th graders, 26 percent of 10th graders and 37 percent of 12th graders reporting daily marijuana use. The annual prevalence of the use of any illicit drug, including inhalants, also saw a significant increase across the three age groups.4
Because the brain continues to develop until around the age of 25, substance abuse during the teen years and on into young adulthood poses significant risks especially to the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain that is responsible for good decision making and the ability to plan to reach a goal is significantly less functional at age 18 compared to age 25. That’s why teens who abuse drugs may have more struggles with impulsivity, decision making and peer pressure than those who do not.5
Substance Abuse and Young Adults
The fact that the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 might explain the choices many young adults make regarding alcohol and drug use. According to Mental Health Daily, along with decision-making and planning, the prefrontal cortex is also responsible for the following:
- Attention– the ability to focus on one thing while ignoring distractions
- Impulse Control– the ability to maintain self-discipline and avoid impulse behaviors
- Logical Thinking– the ability to rationalize and make smarter choices
- Organized Thinking– the ability to deal with thoughts in an organized fashion
- Personality Development– the continued refining of your personality and the type of person you are becoming
- Risk Management– the ability to asses a situation and determine the benefits or dangers
- Short-term memory– the ability to remember multiple things that occurred in the recent past5
Because young adults are often faced with the stress of college life, the development of life-long relationships and the need for career success, the temptation to use drugs and alcohol to cope with pressure can be overwhelming. However, the substances that seem to take away stress and help with relaxation are actually stopping the development of a healthy brain; the very thing young people need to deal with these issues in productive ways.
Addiction and the Elderly
One often overlooked area of substance abuse is addiction in the elderly. According the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, although senior citizens age 65 and older make up only 13 percent of the total population, they are prescribed over 30 percent of all prescription drugs each year. These numbers place older adults at a significant risk for prescription drug abuse.
Doctors and other care providers often overlook drug misuse in the senior population due to limited time spent with their patients and a lack of knowledge and research in the field.6 Those specializing in senior health care and experts in geriatric care management are working to educate health care providers and loved ones about the specific drug needs of seniors. Proper management of all prescription drugs along with over-the-counter medications and supplements is the best way to prevent the development of addiction to opioids and other medications.
Alcohol abuse is also a growing problem among America’s elderly. Alcoholism is often overlooked due to the symptoms being so similar to that of other diseases of the elderly. Some of these include:
- Slurred speech
- Loss of interest in favorite activities
- Chronic and unsupported health complaints
- Hostility or depression
- Memory loss and confusion6
The NCADD reports the following statistics related to addition and the elderly:
- 2.5 million older adults currently have an alcohol or drug problem.
- Six to eleven percent of elderly hospital admissions are a result of alcohol or drug problems — including emergency room admissions and elderly psychiatric hospital admissions.
- Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the U.S.
- Nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol related problems.
- Older adults are hospitalized as often for alcoholic related problems as for heart attacks.
- Nearly 17 million prescriptions for tranquilizers are prescribed for older adults each year.
- Benzodiazepines are the most commonly misused and abused prescription medications among the elderly.6
Currently, substance abuse in the elderly, including alcohol and prescription drug abuse, is one of the fastest growing health problems in the United States.6 Although more research and education are needed to understand seniors dealing with drug addiction, there are treatment programs that specialize in meeting the unique needs of this population.
Treatment for Addicts of All Ages
Sobriety and a drug-free life can be possible for all those who deal with substance abuse regardless of age. Early intervention is crucial in the diagnosis and treatment of addiction and any underlying mental illness that may be causing the problem. If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, we are her for you.
1 “Drug Misuse and Addiction.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). July 2018.
2 Wilcox, Stephen. “Signs and Symptoms.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. 19 Dec. 2016.
3 Fogoros, Richard N. “Underage Drinking Risk Factors and Consequences.” Verywell Mind. 27 June 2018.
4 Lloyd D. Johnston Richard A. Miech Patrick M. O’Malley Jerald G. Bachman John E. Schulenberg Megan E. Patrick. “Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use.” National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Jan. 2018.
5 “At What Age Is The Brain Fully Developed?” Mental Health Daily. 19 Feb. 2015.
6 Wilcox, Stephen. “Alcohol, Drug Dependence and Seniors.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. 26 June 2015.
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David W. Newton is a board certified pharmacist and also has been a board member for boards of examiners for the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy since 1983. His areas of expertise are primarily pharmaceuticals as well as cannabinoids. You can read an article about his expertise in CBD on the National Library of Medicine.
Reviewed by: Kim Chin and Marian Newton