Senior Substance Abuse:
Why Are Seniors More Susceptible?

Having a few too many drinks. Taking one too many pain-relieving pills. Using illicit drugs to self-medicate. While these may seem harmless in isolated occurrences, they are all risky behaviors that can easily lead to a substance use disorder. Misusing prescription or illicit drugs, or even  alcohol, may not be an issue that you’ve ever experienced personally, but as a senior, you may be more prone to it than you realize. 

How Seniors Become Addicted to Drugs or Alcohol

Sadly, according to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, 2.5 million people struggle with senior substance abuse in the United States. Although anyone could become dependent on drugs at any point in their life, substance use is the most harmful to the elderly. This is due to the fact that as the body ages, its ability to process medications slows significantly, meaning that an individual can become addicted to much smaller doses of just one medication. What makes matters worse is that seniors are very likely to be taking multiple types of medication at once, more so than any other age group. In fact, 3 out of 10 seniors (ages 57–85) take at least fiveprescription drugs for ailments ranging from high blood pressure to dementia. But taking more medications isn’t the only reason that older adults are more prone to addiction. 

Seniors become addicted faster than other age groups because of: 

  • Slower metabolism
  • Cognitive decline 
  • Taking multiple prescriptions for different ailments (e.g. diabetes, dementia, etc.)
  • Having higher levels of chronic pain, anxiety and sleep disorders
  • Co-occurring health conditions
  • The tendency to self-medicate
  • An increased rate of surgical procedures (requiring more prescriptions for pain)
  • A misdiagnosis from medical professionals

Even though seniors take medications for various quality of life improvements, the end result may not be a total improvement of their health; the physical and mental side effects of each substance can vary, and each substance carries with it the potential to be abused. Exercising caution when taking multiple medications is highly advised in order to avoid inadvertently becoming addicted.

Commonly Misused Drugs Among Seniors

There are three main types of drugs that the majority of seniors consume: alcohol, benzodiazepines (benzos) and opioids. Whether it takes the form of liquor, wine or beer, alcohol is the most commonly abused drug among adults ages 65 and over. Benzos and opioids are both types of prescription medications that are often used to ease chronic pain, or to treat a mental disorder or illness. Adults in this same age group consume 40 percent of all prescription medications in America. This can lead to senior substance abuse.

Alcohol

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the United States. To put elderly alcoholism into perspective, seniors are hospitalized for alcohol-related issues just as often as they are for heart attacks. Since at-risk drinking (which is defined as having more than three drinks on one occasion or more than seven drinks per week) is common among the elderly, doctors recommend having no more than seven standard drinks (like a 5 oz. glass of wine) per week to avoid senior substance abuse. 

Benzodiazepines 

Each year, nearly 17 million prescriptions for sedatives are taken by seniors. The most commonly prescribed (and misused) type of sedatives are benzodiazepines. Usually prescribed for conditions such as cerebral palsy and anxiety disorders, these medications include Xanax, Valium and Klonopin. The use of any benzodiazepines should always be monitored by a medical professional. 

Opioids 

The elderly have an increased chance of becoming addicted to opioids as they commonly experience ailments that opioids are designed to treat. Older adults undergo surgery often and have higher rates of arthritis and osteoporosis, all of which are conditions where a doctor could prescribe opioid medications. Too many lead to senior substance abuse.

Signs of Senior Substance Abuse 

When someone is dependent on drugs or alcohol, there are usually several physical and behavioral signs that can indicate addiction. These can include:  

  • Poor self-care
  • Drinking before, during or after meals 
  • Outbursts of anger or increased irritability 
  • Appearing confused or forgetful
  • Estrangement from friends or relatives
  • Becoming defensive when asked about their medication
  • Filling a prescription at different pharmacies
  • Making excuses for needing extra medicine
  • Having a supply of “extra” pills stashed in a pocket or purse
  • Taking pills at unusual times 

What to Do If You’re Addicted to Drugs or Alcohol 

If you or someone you know is addicted to drugs or alcohol, admitting the need for help is a huge first step. Talk to your doctor about switching medications if you feel that you may be unable to stop using the drugs that you’re currently taking, or ask for opioid-free pain relievers. Your doctor may be able to prescribe a non-addictive substance or recommend a rehabilitation program if you have a substance use disorder. For people who are considering seeking treatment, there are a variety of options available across the country to help people overcome a substance use disorder. The Recovery Village has centers located in Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Washington, and recovery resources by zip-code are also available.


Reaching out is the first step to finding quality treatment that is tailored to your personal needs. To evaluate your treatment options, call The Recovery Village and speak with someone who can help. It’s a toll-free call, that is completely confidential, and there is no pressure to commit to a program. The representatives at The Recovery Village will listen to your concerns, answer your questions about drug or alcohol addiction, and can recommend a treatment plan that matches your needs or the needs of a loved one, including anyone involved in senior substance abuse. At The Recovery Village, healing from addiction is possible at any age — reach out today to find out more.

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