Substance abuse affects every age, gender and ethnicity, but individuals may choose to use different substances depending on their age. For example, sniffing glue or paint is more common among high school-aged individuals, whereas illicit use of prescription painkillers, also known as narcotics, is common among the elderly. Another commonly abused substance among older-aged individuals is alcohol. Keep in mind that alcohol and opioids are actually two of the most commonly addictive substances among any adult-aged group, but as a general population, we tend to forget that the elderly population consumes addictive substances in high amounts. Gardening, soap operas, knitting and bingo may be the typical image of Grandma and Grandpa, but there is much to be revealed under the surface in older adults.

“The 2009 SAMHSA National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed dramatic increases in illicit drug use in older adults, including nonmedical use of prescription drugs among women aged 60 to 64. Overall, alcohol was the most frequently reported primary substance of abuse for persons aged 50 or older. Opiates were the second most commonly reported primary substance of abuse, reported most frequently by individuals aged 50 to 59,” according to a recent article.

Why the elderly are prone to substance abuse

Although younger generations may be hooked on illicit substances because they enjoy the high or want a new experience, older individuals tend to use illicit substances to cover up their depression, problems sleeping, grief from the loss of a loved one, or boredom from loneliness or retirement. Growing old can be difficult for many people as the mind and body drastically change. As individuals age, it becomes more and more common for them to lose loved ones such as close friends, a spouse or family members. Loss can leave a person feeling alone and sad, triggering substance use.

The older individuals become, the more physical pain they usually endure, such as back pain or joint pain from arthritis. This chronic pain leads older individuals to become addicted to prescription pain medications. Additionally, the brain also undergoes changes. The brain white matter becomes smaller, known as atrophy, and as a result cognitive functions such as memory start to decline. Dementia, although not a normal process in aging, is more common in elderly people, and these memory changes can lead these individuals to consume more addictive substances.

The toll of substance abuse on the elderly

Although the elderly population is at an increased risk for health problems, and normal aging processes can lead them to drink and use prescription painkillers, their bodies also take a bigger hit due to consumption of these substances.

As individuals age, their metabolism slows down. The liver and the kidney are the two primary organs that are responsible for the detoxification and the excretion of medications, toxins, substances and drugs. Dose adjustments in medications are often required in the elderly population because their liver and kidneys cannot metabolize substances as well as younger individuals can. The substance or medication usually stays in the body for a longer time period and eventually can build up and cause an unintended overdose.

Due to the fact that the kidneys cannot clear opiates in the elderly population as efficiently as in younger populations, the elderly are more at risk for kidney failure, intoxication and overdose more than younger individuals. Additionally, in older individuals there is a smaller ratio of body fat to water, resulting in less water to dilute the alcohol, causing a lower threshold for intoxication.

Substance abuse in the elderly population is often overlooked, but it is important to keep in mind that older individuals also can become victims to this disease and are actually more vulnerable to intoxication and overdose.