Drug Abuse Where You Might Not Expect It: Older Americans Getting Drunk, High Too

You may not think of grandma or grandpa, or mom or dad, as being at risk for drug addiction or alcohol abuse.

But it’s important to remember that members of today’s burgeoning senior population weren’t children of the subdued Depression Era, like their parents. Rather, many seniors now belong to the “live and let live” Baby Boom. Experimentation with marijuana and psychedelics was common for many of them in their younger years. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes daily wasn’t considered excessive in the society in which they grew up.

Add to that equation that an aging population has very real health issues that may involve addictive medication. For example, many suffer from arthritis or other kinds of debilitating pain and may take an opioid. Some suffer from mental distress or anxiety and may use a benzodiazepine. The potential for prescription drug abuse is perhaps the most serious threat they face.

Even if drug abuse doesn’t begin intentionally, it can develop over time, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “Persons aged 65 and older comprise only 13 percent of the population, yet account for more than one-third of total outpatient spending on prescription medications in the United States,” NIDA reports on its website 1. “Older patients are more likely to be prescribed long-term and multiple prescriptions, and some experience cognitive decline, which could lead to improper use of medications. Alternatively, those on a fixed income may abuse another person’s remaining medication to save money.”

Older people process drugs in their body differently from younger people, making interactions and overdoses especially dangerous when medications are not taken properly. Elderly people underscore their risk when they combine alcohol with their prescriptions, which can be fatal.

Painkillers, Booze, Anxiety Meds a Dangerous Mix

According to research published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence, the number of older adults needing substance abuse treatment was projected to more than triple from 1.7 million in 2000 and 2001 to 4.4 million in 2020. “This is due to a 50 percent increase in the number of older adults and a 70 percent increase in the rate of treatment need among older adults,” the paper reported 2.

Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry analyzed results from the 2005 and 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health among 10,953 respondents age 50 and older. Among the group, 6,717 were aged 50 to 64 and 4,236 were 65 or older 3.

Overall, two thirds of the men and 55 percent of the women reported alcohol use during the past year. In the 65 and over group, 13 percent of men and eight percent of women reported at-risk alcohol use, and more than 14 percent of men and three percent of women reported binge drinking.

“Among male subjects, binge drinking compared with no alcohol use was associated with higher income and being separated, divorced or widowed, while being employed and nonmedical use of prescription drugs were associated with binge drinking compared with no alcohol use among women,” the researchers reported.

A commonly reported side effect of drinking among older people is falling. In the elderly, a fall can result in broken bones. That usually ends up creating a much-diminished quality of life for the elderly person and can lead to taking more pain medication. Additional health problems may develop due to inactivity. A rapid, overall decline sometimes follows given other co-occurring disorders the patient may have.

Growing Up in the “Hippie” Era

A 2010 Associated Press report said that among 55- to 59-year-olds, marijuana use tripled from 1.6 percent in 2002 to 5.1 percent in 2008 4. The report cited surveys from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“Observers expect further increases as 78 million boomers born between 1945 and 1964 age,” the AP reported. “For many boomers, the drug never held the stigma it did for previous generations, and they tried it decades ago.”

But in the AP story, Dr. William Dale, chief of geriatrics and palliative medicine at the University of Chicago Medical Center, cautions that not only could marijuana use also precipitate falls among the elderly if they become dizzy, but it could also result in cardiovascular disease. In addition, research has shown that marijuana use can cause cognitive impairment, and older Americans are already at risk for developing dementia-related illnesses.

Studies have even shown that older people are increasingly using crystal methamphetamine. Last year, the Hawaii department of public health reported that methamphetamine use among those age 50 and older doubled between 2010 and 2014, according to television station KHON 5.

Unfortunately, older Americans are often isolated, so signs of addiction may go unnoticed. Other times, examples of unusual behavior may simply be chalked up to senility or a temporary mood.

How to Gently Suggest Finding Help

Like most addicts, seniors are likely to resist suggestions that they need drug or alcohol treatment. Many feel they have earned the right to indulge.

It may help to share facts about falling dangers, as well as an explanation of how their bodies don’t metabolize drugs and alcohol like they used to and how that can lead to overdose.

According to the National Institute on Aging, you can also explain the following:

  • Drinking too much alcohol over long periods of time can lead to certain kinds of cancers as well as liver damage.
  • Drinking worsens issues related to blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis and ulcers, issues many older Americans already face.
  • Drugs and drinking cause feelings of forgetfulness and confusion that a doctor may misdiagnose as Alzheimer’s disease.
  • The golden years are supposed to be just that. Deep down, it’s likely that seniors want to be healthy for their grandchildren and enjoying hobbies and traveling that they couldn’t find time for in their working years.
  • “People over age 65 should have no more than seven drinks a week and no more than three drinks on any one day,” the National Institute of Aging reports 6.
  • Ask yourself or your loved one, “Do you have a health problem? Are you taking certain medications?” You may need to drink less or not drink at all and should talk with your doctor.

If your doctor does suggest treatment, the National Institute on Aging recommends talking to a counselor with experience in alcohol problems among older people. It’s also important to find a support group for older people with alcohol problems and to find a treatment center that offers medically proven treatments.

Medical professionals who specialize in treating geriatric addiction are in short supply, but it’s important to find such specialists whenever possible.


1. National Institute of Drug Abuse (2014, November). Prescription Drug Abuse. Older Adults. Retrieved March 13, 2016, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/trends-in-prescription-drug-abuse/older-adults

2. Gfroerer, J. et al. (2003, March 1). Substance Abuse Treatment Need Among Older Adults in 2020: The Impact of the Aging Baby Boom Cohort.

3. Blazer, Dan et al. (2009, Oct. 10). The Epidemiology of At-Risk and Binge Drinking Among Middle-Aged and Elderly Community Adults: National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Retrieved March 13, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12609694

4. Associated Press/NBC News. (2010, Feb. 22). Pot Use Among Seniors Goes up as Boomers Age. Retrieved March 13, 2013, from http://www.nbcnews.com/id/35519187/ns/health-aging/t/pot-use-among-seniors-goes-boomers-age/#.VuXHIZwrKhc

5. Report: Meth Use among older Hawaii adults nearly doubles (2015, Sept. 11). KHON-TV. Retrieved March 13, 2016, from http://khon2.com/2015/09/11/report-meth-use-among-older-hawaii-adults-nearly-doubles/

6. Alcohol use in Older People. (2015, Dec. 15). National Institute on Aging. Retrieved March 13, 2016, from https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/publication/alcohol-use-older-people

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