Facts about Substance Abuse among Older People

Substance Use in Older Adults DrugFacts | National Institute on Drug Abuse  (NIDA)

While illegal drugs or substances use usually declines after adulthood, nearly one million older individuals aged 65 and up live with drug use disorder, as reported by 2018 data. While the number of drug use disorder admissions to treatment centers between 2000 and 2012 varied slightly, the proportions of older adult admissions increased slightly, from 3.4% to at least 7%. 

Are older individuals impacted differently by drugs and alcohol? The aging process could lead to physical and social changes that can increase their vulnerability to substance abuse. Little is known about the effects of alcohol and illegal substances on the aging brain. 

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But oldies usually metabolize illegal substances more slowly compared to young adults, and their brains can be pretty sensitive to illicit drugs. One study shows that individuals addicted to cocaine when they are younger may have an accelerated age-related downward spiral in the temporal lobe and a smaller temporal lobe than control people in a controlled group who don’t use cocaine. 

It could make oldies more vulnerable to the adverse effects of cocaine use as they grow older. Oldies may be more likely to experience heart and lung problems, memory issues, and mood disorders. Illegal substances can worsen the conditions mentioned, exacerbating negative health consequences of drug use. 

Not only that, the effects of some substances like coordination, impaired reaction time, or judgment can result in various accidents lie motor vehicle crashes and serious falls. These kinds of injuries can pose more significant risks to older people’s health compared to young adults, and it will coincide with a much longer recovery time.

The Prescription meds

Chronic health conditions develop as part of natural aging, and older individuals are usually prescribed more meds compared to other age groups (except immunocompromised people), leading to a much higher rate of exposure to possible addictive meds. 

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According to studies, people ages 57 to 85 years old showed common mixing of prescription and non-prescription meds and dietary supplements. More or less 80% of research participants used at least one prescription medication regularly, with nearly 50% using more than five supplements or medications, putting at least one in twenty-five individuals in this age group at a higher risk for significant medication-medication interaction. 

Other risks include accidental misuse and aggravating pre-existing mental health problems. For instance, according to 2019 research of individuals, age 50 years old and above, more than 25% who did not use prescription benzodiazepines or opioids expressed suicidal thoughts, compared to 2% of the population who don’t use them. It underscores the need for cautious screening before physicians prescribe these meds.

Substance Abuse in Older Adults

Opioid pain Meds

Persistent pain may be pretty complex in older adults experiencing other conditions. More or less 80% of patients with advanced cancer reported pain, 77% of the population with heart diseases, and more or less 40% of outpatients aged 65 years old and above. 

Between 4% and 9% of the oldies use prescription opioids to relieve pain. From the mid-90s to early 2010s, opioids prescribed for old individuals during regular clinic visits increased nine times. The United States population of 55 years old and older increased by at least 6% between 2013 and 2015. 

Still, the proportion of the population in that age group that looks for opioid use disorder treatment increased at least 50%. Proportions of older people using heroin more than doubled between 2013 and 2015 because some individuals misusing these things switched to cheaper medicines. Like Medicare coverage for substance abuse, treatment for these cases can also help lower the number of older people using this kind of medication.


At least 9% of adults aged 50 to 65 years old reported marijuana use in the past five years compared to 7% in the past ten years. The use of marijuana in the past couple of years by individuals, ages 65 years old and above increased from 0.4% to 2.9%. 

Medical marijuana

According to one United States study, close to a quarter of cannabis users, age 65 years old and above report that a physician had recommended cannabis in the past year. Studies show that medical marijuana can help relieve symptoms related to chronic pain, malnutrition, sleep hygiene, depression, or help with cancer treatment side effects. 

It is imperative to note that the cannabis plant has not been approved by the United States FDA or Food and Drug Administration as a medicine. That is why the benefits of medical cannabis need to be weighed against its potential risks, particularly for people who have other serious health problems or take prescribed meds.