By Wesley Gallagher

We all know health risks increase with age. But there’s a risk seniors face that often flies under the radar – substance abuse and addiction.

Elderly woman holding pillsYou might be thinking, “Wait a second, Grandpa abusing alcohol?” or “The little old lady next door addicted to painkillers?” They don’t quite fit the common stereotype of people at risk for substance abuse, but aging comes with many changes that could do just that.

Statistics from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence show that 2.5 million older adults have an alcohol or drug issue. Widowers over the age of 75 have the highest rate of alcoholism in the US, and nearly 50 percent of nursing home residents have alcohol-related issues.1 According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, up to 17 percent of adults 60 and older abuse prescription drugs.2

Why Are Seniors Susceptible to Drug Abuse?

Some aspects of aging that contribute to the risk of substance abuse include:

Lifestyle Changes

As people get older, major transitions occur. Retirement from long careers and empty houses from children flying the coop can often leave people feeling like their life has lost meaning. Loss of aging friends, family members and spouses can bring about great sadness and loneliness. These emotional changes make the elderly susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse.

Health Changes

As we age, our bodies and minds don’t always work the way they used to. Many people begin to lose mobility, while others find their mind becoming less and less sharp. These struggles can be disheartening, if not debilitating, and often lead to mental health issues like depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Medication Changes

Increased health issues often come with an increase in prescribed medicine. While adults 65 and older comprise only 13 percent of the population, they account for almost 30 percent of prescription medications in the US.1 Two of the main types of medicine prescribed to older adults — opioids and benzodiazepines — are two types of drugs most likely to lead to abuse and addiction.3 For the elderly, who often have multiple prescriptions, the risk of misuse, abuse and adverse drug interactions is heightened. As we age, our bodies process drugs and alcohol differently, so negative effects are often magnified and the likelihood of drug-related injuries increases.


Symptoms of drug or alcohol abuse can be tricky because they often mimic those of other medical and behavioral disorders common among the elderly, such as diabetes, dementia and depression, so the problems often go unnoticed by loved ones and doctors. Seniors may be less likely to talk to their doctors about problems they consider private, and relatives and adult children may be ashamed to bring up the possibility of addiction or abuse. There’s also a quiet but pervasive assumption that it’s not worth treating such issues in the elderly population, which decreases the likelihood that abuse will be noticed or treated.1

How Can Abuse and Addiction Be Prevented and Treated?

While preventing and treating alcohol and drug abuse in seniors can be complicated, there are steps you can take to prevent and treat abuse in yourself or a loved one.

How to Prevent Abuse and Addiction:

  • Talk to your doctor about the drugs you or your loved one has been prescribed. Ask about alternatives to opioids and other drugs with high risk of addiction. Make sure appropriate dosages are being prescribed and know the risks, including possible interactions with other drugs or supplements.
  • Know and be on the lookout for signs of addiction or abuse.3

Signs of Possible Addiction:

  • Loss of interest in hobbies or pleasurable activities
  • Changes in appearance
  • Chronic and unsupported health complaints
  • Hostility or depression
  • Memory loss and confusion1
  • Obtaining prescriptions from more than one doctor or pharmacy
  • Taking more frequent or higher doses of medicine than prescribed
  • Talking frequently about medicine, fear of being without it
  • Defensiveness when asked about medicine
  • Secretiveness around medication
  • History of past alcohol or drug abuse3

What to Do If You Think There’s a Problem

Contact your doctor right away if you suspect dependence or abuse. They will be able to diagnose and decide how to move forward with looking at options treatment. There are treatment centers that specialize in programs for seniors, and many insurance plans cover stays at residential facilities.2


1Alcohol, Drug Dependence And Seniors.” National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Accessed February 26, 2018.

2 Sollitto, Marlo. “The Growing Problem of Prescription Drug Addiction in Seniors.” Aging Care, January 23, 2018.

3Prescription Drug Abuse in the Elderly.”, Accessed February 26, 2018.