Substance Abuse in Older Adults - Topic Overview
Many people think
alcohol and drug abuse happen only to teens and
younger adults. But all ages can have problems with drugs and alcohol,
including older adults.
Older adults may use illegal drugs, use prescription or
over-the-counter medicines in harmful ways, drink too much alcohol, or mix
alcohol and medicines. Doing any of these can cause serious health problems and
problems with money and the law. It also can harm relationships with family and
Substance abuse in older adults may be overlooked, because:
- Older adults are more likely to drink or use
drugs at home rather than in public.
- Older adults may not have
duties that are affected by substance abuse, such as going to school or
- Signs of abuse are similar to those found in health problems
that many older adults have, such as
- Caregivers of older adults may
be aware of the problem but may not want to talk about it.
Alcohol abuse is dangerous for all people, and it can be very
dangerous for older adults. Older adults:1
- Usually need less alcohol to become drunk
(intoxicated) than someone younger.
drunk longer, because their bodies process alcohol more slowly.
have vision and hearing problems and slower reaction times. Alcohol can make
these problems worse, which means alcohol-related falls, car crashes, and other
kinds of accidents are more likely.
- May be more likely to mix
alcohol and medicine because they are taking so many medicines. Mixing alcohol
with many over-the-counter and prescription medicines can be dangerous or even
In older adults, alcohol can trigger some health problems or make
them worse. These health problems include
high blood pressure,
ulcers, liver disease,
anxiety, sleep problems, and depression.1
Experts suggest that adults 65 and older have:1
- No more than 1
standard drink a day.
- No more than 2 drinks on any drinking occasion,
such as New Year's Eve or weddings.
Some older adults should not drink alcohol. Women who are small may
want to ask their doctors what amount of alcohol is safe for them.
Misuse of medicine
Older adults often have to take many medicines. This can easily
lead to misuse or abuse of medicines. You misuse or abuse medicine when:
- You take too much medicine or take medicine
when you don't need to.
- You use older medicines or another person's
- You take medicine to feel good or "high." This happens
most often with medicines used to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety,
or pain you have had for a long time (chronic pain).
- You take
medicines while drinking alcohol.
- You don't get a prescription
- You don't take medicine as your doctor directs, such as
not taking enough medicine or skipping doses.