Senior Citizens Substance Abuse Often Overlooked

Article contributed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC and Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC

Senior Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is a public health issue that affects countless individuals nationwide.  Many stereotypes and stigmas often surround the issue of substance abuse, despite the growing concern of this problem throughout the United States. 

A common misconception about substance abuse is that it only impacts the young.  This widespread myth excludes the fact that substance abuse affects people of all ages. 

The truth is that an individual of any background can struggle with substance abuse. This includes:

  • Older adults
  • Senior citizens
  • Full-time workers
  • People of any race
  • Both men and women

Senior Citizen Are More Vulnerable

Senior citizens in particular are often under recognized in their susceptibility to substance abuse.  However, many studies have demonstrated the vulnerabilities this age group has to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. 

In a study by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, up to 30% of older adults of the ages 75 to 85 were found to have drinking problems [1].  Illicit drug abuse also continues to be an increasing problem among this age group, particularly as the generation of baby boomers is aging. 

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the rate of hospital admissions for conditions caused by illicit drug use and prescription medication rose by 96 percent among  adults ages 65 to 84 [2].

Why the Risk Factors for Older Adults Is so High

As adults age and transition into the later years of their lives, they will face increasing risk factors that will make them more vulnerable to addiction. Here are some of the major risk factors that can increase an older adult’s risk for substance abuse:

Many senior adults regularly take several prescription medications, with nearly three in ten people between the ages of 57 to 85 using at least five prescriptions concurrently [2].  Because this has become commonplace among our elderly, the signs of drug abuse and misuse are often overlooked.  

If you are concerned that an elder adult in your life may be struggling with substance abuse, be aware of these signs and symptoms:

  • Changes in mood, including increased agitation or irritability
  • Episodes of confusion or memory lapses
  • Increased susceptibility to falling accidents
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
  • Habitually switching doctors to acquire multiple prescriptions
  • Use of multiple pharmacies to fill prescriptions
  • Poor hygiene
  • Increased isolation and avoidance of social activities

Raising Awareness for Addiction Among Senior Citizens

Raising awareness of the special needs of this population is important to preventing substance abuse in the elder generation as well as providing more effective treatments to those who may need care for recovery.  In the face of the growing problem of substance abuse among senior citizens, much can be done to promote healthier ways for coping with the various stressors that may accompany the aging process. 

Recognizing and treating substance abuse in older adults can drastically improve quality of life, making the golden years both fulfilling and enriching.


[1]: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism,

[2]: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration


Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 28, 2014
Published on, Directory for Addiction & Abuse Treatment

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Addiction Hope in January, 2013, after experiencing years of inquiries for addiction help by visitors to our well regarded sister site, Eating Disorder Hope. Many of the eating disorder sufferers that contact Eating Disorder Hope also had a co-occurring issue of addiction to alcohol, drugs, and process addictions.