A largely unnoticed but increasing trend is that of drug and alcohol abuse and misuse among older people. Between 2002 and 2010, hospital admissions related to alcohol more than doubled for men and women over 65, and alcohol-related deaths for those over 75 are steadily rising.
Part of this can be explained by the fact that the “Boomer” generation is aging, and long-term substance-abusers—those who survived—are now filling the ranks of senior citizenry. However, there is also the phenomenon of the late starter. Some may simply have, now that they’re retired, free time to experiment, and experimentation can often lead to problematic use. Others find themselves self-medicating or attempting to augment drugs that they need for pain, anxiety, depression, or other ailments that have developed over time. (The elderly constitute the largest group of prescription and over-the-counter drug users.)
Above and beyond the usual problems associated with substance abuse—for all demographics—there are numerous issues that affect older people more dramatically:
- Alcohol and drugs may have dangerous interactions with prescription medications
- Alcohol and drugs affect nutrition and sleep, both of which have increased importance for the elderly in terms of general health and quality of life
- Alcohol- and drug-related accidents, such as falls, can have more severe consequences (broken hip, etc) for the elderly. This in turn has social costs, as medical care becomes more expensive
- Alcohol and drugs can increase the likelihood of stroke, cardiovascular issues, balance problems, and liver failure
Furthermore, substance abuse can increase isolation for the elderly—a problem that becomes self-reinforcing as the isolation prompts further substance abuse. Anxiety, depression, cognitive impairment, and addiction are all potential consequences.
It is often difficult for older people to distinguish between the consequences of substance abuse and the symptoms of various physical issues as well as the side effects of legitimate medications. They also may feel embarrassment about discussing the issue, mistaking secrecy for privacy.
As with any age group, if the consequences of drug and/or alcohol use are considerable—or if they outweigh the perceived pleasure they provide—then an attempt should be made to moderate or quit altogether. If this proves difficult, treatment should be sought.
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