Though youth drug use remains in the spotlight, drug addiction has become a reality for many individuals in the elderly population. In fact, according to reports by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), substance abuse treatment rates for patients older than 45 increased by nearly one-third just between the years 1995 and 2002, alone. Nearly 25 percent of all prescription drugs dispensed in the United States are consumed by the elderly.
Among senior prescription drug users, estimates suggest that more than one in 10 seniors have misused or abused — both intentionally and unintentionally — their medications. For many seniors, prescription drug abuse can quickly lead to addiction, creating — or compounding preexisting — physical and psychological issues.
Common Drugs of Addiction Among the Elderly Population
While virtually any prescription drug can be abused, the most common drugs of addiction among seniors involve prescription painkillers (largely opiates), benzodiazepines prescribed for anxiety, “z-drugs” dispensed for insomnia and muscle relaxants. Depending on the prescription drug, addiction can range from largely psychological or involve physical dependency — worsened by tolerance that builds with time and dosage.
For many elderly individuals, interactions between — or duplications of — prescriptions can also lead to physical addiction, due to the sheer number of prescribing physicians that may be involved in ongoing care.
Risk Factors for Drug Addiction Among Seniors
For some elderly individuals, chronic or terminal illnesses can lead to high dosages of analgesic drugs being prescribed at one time. In some cases, pain management is simply not achieved, despite high levels of opiate use, leaving seniors battling ongoing pain and addiction simultaneously.
In other cases, mental health conditions such as depression, complicated grief, anxiety or personality disorders may have gone undetected, leading seniors to self-medicate loneliness or mood disorders. Additionally, with time and age, drug tolerance can change, leading to heightened responses to prescription drugs that were tolerated normally earlier in life.
In some such cases, drug addiction treatment centers that have experience with mental health issues — known as “Dual Diagnosis facilities” — may be necessary in order to successfully and simultaneously treat both psychological issues and drug addiction.
Concerns About Drug Addiction Help for Elderly Individuals
For many seniors, the notion of entering drug addiction treatment can be intimidating. Concerns about the drug detoxification process, pain management, isolation and age difference between the patient and peers can all become contributing fears regarding recovery.
Additionally, older individuals may fear stigmas once attached to drug addiction treatment will still endure, dissuading them from admitting to a drug addiction problem. However, for those who seek and receive successful drug addiction treatment, sobriety brings enriched social interactions, greater clarity of mind, stronger memory function and higher levels of health once addiction is resolved.