Research shows that about 40% of Americans over 65 do use alcohol, despite the facts that the body’s ability to break down alcohol decreases with age and that alcohol can have dangerous synergy with many medications commonly taken by seniors.
The number of people over 50 with substance abuse problems – including alcohol and drug abuse – is expected to increase from 2.8 million to 5.7 million by 2020. And it’s in many ways a hidden epidemic, one that often goes unrecognized by doctors and families of seniors.
Joseph Garbely, MD, medical director for Caron’s Pennsylvania facility, says the problem has become so acute that its Pennsylvania facility now has a specialized program for seniors.
According to a 2013 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), there were at least 1,700 facilities offering senior-specific substance abuse programs out of about 18,000 total facilities.
Effects of benzodiazepine medication, such as alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium), can become amplified with alcohol, as can painkillers, with potentially fatal consequences. Taking blood pressure medication, such as beta blockers, along with alcohol can lead to unsteadiness and falls.
And while alcohol is the main issue, other seniors are seeking treatment for addiction to these legal medications. A recent study found more older adults are being treated for addiction to opioid painkillers.
By 2012, those between the age of 50 to 59 made up the largest demographic in opioid treatment programs in New York City.
A recent nationwide survey of people with elderly parents revealed that most expect the family doctor to be asking about their parent’s medication and alcohol use. The survey also showed that half of the grown children didn’t think substance abuse was a problem among the elderly, even while 37% reported seeing their parent practice risky habits, including having three alcohol beverages or more in one sitting, or driving under the influence of alcohol.
Sources for evidence:
Addiction Journal: Han. B, et. al. Substance use disorder among older adults in the United States in 2020
National Institute on Aging: “Alcohol Use in Older People”