Substance Abuse, a Public Health Issue for Older Adults

Alcohol and prescription drug misuse can be problems among older adults, and they may be more susceptible to the adverse effects of both.

Helpful Highlights

  • Substance abuse is a significant public health issue for older adults due to several reasons.

  • Given these factors, addressing substance abuse among older adults is essential for promoting healthy aging, preventing adverse health outcomes, and improving overall quality of life.

  • Public health efforts aimed at raising awareness about substance abuse risks, providing education and support for older adults and their caregivers, improving screening and assessment practices in healthcare settings, and enhancing access to substance abuse treatment and support services are critical for addressing substance abuse among older adults.

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Increased sensitivity to substances

As individuals age, physiological changes occur in the body, including changes in metabolism, organ function, and sensitivity to medications and substances. Your loved one may experience heightened sensitivity to the effects of alcohol and prescription drugs, increasing their risk of adverse effects and substance abuse.

Prescription medication misuse

Older adults are more likely to be prescribed medications for managing chronic health conditions such as pain, anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders. However, misuse or inappropriate use of prescription medications, such as taking higher doses than prescribed or combining medications with alcohol, can lead to substance abuse and dependence.

Comorbidity with mental health issues

Substance abuse often coexists with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and cognitive impairment among older adults. Older adults may use substances as a coping mechanism to alleviate symptoms of mental illness, leading to a cycle of substance abuse and worsening mental health outcomes.

Increased risk of polypharmacy

Older adults commonly take multiple medications to manage their health conditions, increasing their risk of polypharmacy (taking five or more medications). Polypharmacy can increase the risk of substance interactions, adverse drug reactions, and substance abuse, particularly when medications with addictive potential are involved.

Adverse health outcomes

Substance abuse among older adults is associated with a range of adverse health outcomes, including cognitive impairment, falls, accidents, injuries, cardiovascular problems, liver damage, gastrointestinal issues, and exacerbation of chronic health conditions. Substance abuse can also impair judgment, increase the risk of accidents and falls, and contribute to social and functional decline.

Underdiagnosis and undertreatment

Substance abuse among older adults is often underdiagnosed and undertreated due to factors such as stigma, ageism, lack of awareness among healthcare providers, and atypical presentation of symptoms. Older adults may be less likely to seek help for substance abuse problems or may not be screened for substance use during routine healthcare visits.

No content in this app, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.

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Elderly man is smiling at his relative caregiver