Most drugs and other chemical substances are helpful when used properly. Alcohol, for example, may offer cardiac benefits when consumed in moderation, and can help promote relaxation and reduce anxiety.
Unfortunately, the misuse of medications and drugs—both legal and illegal, as well as alcohol and tobacco—is a growing problem in the older population. The terms “drug abuse” or “substance abuse” is defined as the use of chemical substances that lead to an increased risk of problems and an inability to control the use of the substance.
Dependence (getting “hooked”) on a drug or alcohol is particularly dangerous in older people because they tend to have more harmful effects from these substances than younger people. These effects include mental problems, kidney and liver disease, and injuries from falls. Dependence can occur even in older people who have never had an addiction problem before.
Many older adults take a lot of different medications every day. These drugs may interact in a harmful way, or react with alcohol to cause problems. These problems might be mistakenly thought of as normal signs of aging but they are not.
With some drugs, your body needs increasingly higher doses to get the original effect, or you may feel withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped. This is referred to as drug “tolerance” meaning that the drug makes your body change in these ways. Even small doses of certain substances may be enough to create a dangerous need for more. Also, a drug that is beneficial when first prescribed may become harmful when other drugs are added, or when there is a change in your health.
Many different organ systems can be damaged by substance abuse and substance abuse has a big effect on society as well. Substance abuse has negative effects on how you feel about yourself, how you manage problems or changes in your life and your relationships. This can add to other challenges that are common in later life.
The Most Common Types of Drug and Substance Abuse
Prescription and Over-the-Counter Medications Abuse Among older adults, prescription and over-the-counter medications, as well as alcohol are commonly misused. Addiction to nicotine (cigarette, pipe, or cigar smoking) is also a common problem. Commonly misused drugs include anxiety pills, sleeping medications and pain medications.
Some older adults also abuse illegal drugs, including marijuana, cocaine, hallucinogens, and injected narcotics. Some people misuse more than one substance.
Many older adults who become addicted to drugs also have another serious medical condition, such as chronic pain or a mental illness.
Alcohol Abuse For an older woman, light or moderate drinking is considered to be one beer, glass of wine, or 1-ounce shot of liquor per day. For men, twice that amount is usually not a problem. However, frequent heavy drinking can cause:
serious illness, especially stomach and liver problems
worsen other medical conditions
interfere with needed medications
greatly decrease overall quality of life
contribute to falls and injuries
Also, any drinking that is linked to mental or physical problems, or the potential for accidents (drinking and driving) is considered problem drinking.
Tobacco Abuse Tobacco abuse includes cigarette, pipe or cigar smoking. Smoking is the cause of many serious heart and lung diseases, as well as cancer, in older people. It also makes many diseases, such as diabetes, more complicated and disabling.
How Common are Drug and Substance Abuse Problems?
Misuse of alcohol or other drugs is a common cause of physical and mental health problems in older Americans, especially older men. Rates of illicit drug use and dependence are lower in the older population than in younger people. But, other types of substance abuse, such as inappropriate use of prescription and over-the-counter (non-prescription) medicines, is increasing.
About three out of five older adults take painkillers regularly. More than one in five take a medication that affects their central nervous system and about 11% take benzodiazepines (a type of sedative). Older women are much more likely to use benzodiazepines than men.
Up to one in three older people develop new problems with alcohol. Men are much more likely to be problem drinkers compared to women. Alcohol abuse tends to be higher in retirement communities and hospital populations compared to older people who live at home.