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Aging and Addiction

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging (AOA), by the year 2030, nearly 1 in 5 U.S. residents will be 65 or older.[1. “A Profile of Older Americans: 2011” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Aging] As the “baby boomer” generation ages, the abuse of alcohol and misuse of prescription medication is predicted to increase as well. In addition to those facts, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) states that by the year 2020, illicit drug use among seniors is predicted to double and reach 3.5 million.[2. “Illicit and Nonmedical Drug Use Among Older Adults: A Review” Journal of Aging and Health] These startling statistics point out that issues surrounding aging and addiction need to be addressed in an effort to educate and provide the proper resources to identify and treat addiction in older adults.


A large barrier towards addressing and treating addiction in older adults is the presence of ageism myths. These myths often contribute to the misdiagnosis and denial of addiction in older adults.

  • Drinking is the only thing that makes Dad happy
  • Mom is old, what difference does it make?
  • Grandpa has nothing better to do, so what if he enjoys having a few drinks every?
  • They are too old to change
  • Only young people suffer from addiction

Despite these ageism myths, addiction is not a lifestyle choice, and it does not discriminate. It can affect individuals at any stage in their life and should not be overlooked based on a person’s age, gender, race, cultural background, or other factors.

Another barrier to treating addiction is denial. Older adults may be more likely to hide their substance abuse problems from their family and/or physician because they are either ashamed, or they view it as a private matter. This prevents them from seeking professional help. Denial can also exist within the family system. Spouses, children, or relatives may be aware of a loved one’s addiction, but are also ashamed of it or simply don’t know how to address it.


Studies show that it is often challenging for healthcare providers to diagnose substance abuse in older adults. It is common to misdiagnose the symptoms of substance abuse or addiction for that of dementia, depression, or other illnesses common with aging. Similar behavioral signs that exist when someone is under the influence may also be mistaken for the symptoms of a dementing illness (loss of balance, confusion, slurred speech). In fact, 37% of physicians fail to address problem drinking among older patients because they believe drinking is one of the last few pleasures left for the elderly.[3. “Aging and Addiction” Carol Colleran, Debra Jay]

Among the older population, there are two patterns of substance abuse; early-onset and late-onset. Early-onset means there has been a lifelong pattern of problem drinking or substance abuse, typically developed in their twenties and thirties, which continues and may potentially get worse with age. Early-onset addicts account for two-thirds of elderly alcoholics.[4. “The Growing Problem of Illicit Substance Abuse in the Elderly: A Review.” The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders.] Late-onset defines individuals that develop a substance abuse problem in their forties and fifties. Often a stressful life event may be the leading factor to increased drinking or prescription pill abuse. Causes are also linked to painful medical conditions, depression, dementia, isolation, financial difficulties, insomnia, sensory deficits, loss of a spouse or child, loss of friends, and poor support systems. Studies show that late-onset addicts account for less than 10% of substance abuse users among the elderly, and they are more receptive to treatment.[5. “The Growing Problem of Illicit Substance Abuse in the Elderly: A Review.” The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders.]

Warning Signs

Below is a list of common warning signs to look for if you believe that a loved one is struggling with addiction.

  • Memory loss or confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Irritability, depression, unexplained chronic pain
  • A desire to be alone most of the time
  • Failure to keep up with physical hygiene or household chores
  • Trouble concentrating and finishing sentences
  • Lack of interest in activities and staying in touch with friends and family

These symptoms also mirror those of dementia, making it difficult to diagnose and treat, but not impossible. There is always hope. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse or addiction don’t wait another day to seek help. Speak to a medical professional about treatment options today. Recovery is possible at any age.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, we are here to help. Feinberg Consulting fosters long-term sobriety through the use of case management, recovery coaching, and family coaching. Call us at 877.538.5425 for a confidential conversation with our team of professionals.

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