Drug Addiction

Seniors and Substance Abuse: A Growing Problem

March 8th, 2016
Seniors and Substance Abuse: A Growing Problem

A problem once believed to only affect younger adults, opioid addiction is now increasing at a startling rate within the nation’s elderly community. There were 55 million opioid prescriptions written last year alone for people 65 and older. This marked a 20 percent increase seen over the past five years, according to IMS Health, an organization that tracks drug dispensation on behalf of the government.

Seniors have also had an increased amount of trips to the emergency room in recent years and a growing number of them have been entering treatment facilities due to their opioid misuse. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported that in 2012, the average number of seniors who were dependent on or misusing prescription drugs in the past year swelled to 336,000, which was a major increase from 132,000 ten years prior.

Several Ways Seniors Can Become Addicted

Oftentimes seniors become addicted to opioids — oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine — after they have taken them for pain management as prescribed by their doctors. Naturally slower to heal from an ailment or injury, the elderly stay on opioids for a significant length of time, sometimes several years.

As tolerance develops from prolonged daily use of an opioid, a person is likely to give in to the strong urge to take higher doses of the medication in order to feel the same effects. This – coupled with older adults being more likely to regularly use over-the-counter medications for their minor day-to-day ailments – can cause complications and even addiction.

Unfortunately, when someone has used opioids for a long period of time, the nerve cells in their brain begin to change. The brain becomes dependent upon the effects of the opioids so that when a person stops taking the medication, severe often debilitating symptoms of withdrawal occur. To avoid these sickening feelings, they may continue using the medication even when they no longer need it for their original pain.

What Addiction Looks Like In a Senior And How to Identify Seniors Most at Risk

Opioid drugs affect a senior’s aging body more strongly than they do a younger person, but that has not slowed senior opioid use. In fact, individuals 60 and older take more prescription drugs than any other age group.

The mild signs for opioid addiction in seniors can vary and be difficult to detect as they might not contrast from typical signs of illness, such as lethargy or constipation. While doctors try to monitor their patients’ opioid use, the lack of daily behavioral observation can add to the difficulty in identifying addiction. A significant change can occur if family and friends of seniors know what to look out for and what factors increase the risk of addiction in elderly people.

Seniors most at risk:

  • Live alone
  • Have had a problem with substance abuse in the past or have a family history of it
  • Have previously dealt with mental health issues
  • Suffer from chronic pain
  • Lack an active lifestyle

Signs of opioid addiction in seniors may include:

  • Taking several pills at a time and often
  • Appearing unkempt and ignoring hygiene
  • Experiencing changes in appetite
  • Becoming offensive when asked about opioid use
  • Being more gruff or angry
  • Hiding pills in unusual places

The combination of seniors misusing their opioid drugs and a medical community that is often quick to write prescriptions for strong painkillers has added a new face to the opioid epidemic. However, knowing that seniors can succumb to addiction just as easily, if not more, as their youthful counterparts is a good step in the right direction for prevention and treatment.


If your loved one is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, we are here to help. Reach out to Mountainside by calling 888 833 4676.