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Substance Abuse in Older Adults - Topic Overview

Warning signs of substance abuse

Below are some of the warning signs of alcohol or drug abuse in older adults. Signs can include changes in your behavior as well as changes in your mental abilities.

If you notice any of these signs in yourself or someone you care about, talk to your doctor. Tell your doctor about the drinking or medicine use, including over-the-counter medicines, herbs, and dietary supplements. Tell your doctor about any alcohol or drug use in the past.

Changes in behavior

You may have a drug or alcohol problem if:

  • You fall a lot.
  • You are not able to make it to the bathroom in time (incontinence).
  • You are having more headaches and dizziness than usual.
  • You are not keeping yourself clean.
  • You have changed what and how you eat. You may not eat as much, for example.
  • You begin to ignore and lose touch with your family and friends.
  • You begin to think about suicide.
  • You begin to have legal or money problems.

Changes in mental abilities

Here are some mental signs of drug or alcohol abuse:

  • You begin to feel anxious a lot of the time.
  • Your memory becomes worse.
  • It's hard for you to focus or make decisions.
  • You lose interest in your usual activities.
  • You have mood swings or feel sad or depressed.

If you have any of these signs, it may not mean you have a drug or alcohol problem. Many of the signs listed here also can be signs of health problems many older adults have. Changes in behavior also could be signs of stress.

Drinking or abusing medicine or drugs often starts after a big change in your life. Retiring, the death of a spouse or good friend, leaving your home, and being diagnosed with a disease all can trigger substance abuse. If a life-changing event happens to you or a loved one, watch for signs of drug or alcohol abuse.


Treatment for alcohol or drug abuse in older adults is the same treatment as for younger people. Detoxification, medicine, counseling, therapy, and 12-step programs all may be used.

If medicine misuse or abuse is the problem, sometimes talking to a doctor, friend, or family member about the problem can help. Treatment could be as simple as learning more about your medicines and organizing how you take them. You may be able to work with your doctor to cut back on how many medicines you take or make it easier to take them.

Your success in treatment is strongly linked to admitting that you have a problem and to your desire to stop misusing or abusing alcohol or drugs.


WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: January 18, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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