When you picture someone who’s struggling with addiction, grandma or grandpa probably don’t come to mind. However, substance abuse is a growing concern among the nation’s aging population. People are living longer, and more individuals are developing substance use disorders during their golden years.

In this article, we’ll talk about some common causes of substance abuse in older generations and why we shouldn’t overlook this problem.

Understanding Addiction Risk Factors

A number of health and lifestyle changes may fuel the rise in substance abuse among older populations. Some of these factors include:

  • Loss of a spouse or close family member
  • Retirement
  • Transitioning to a nursing home or assisted-living facility
  • Financial stress
  • Physical or mental health problems
  • Difficulty sleeping

Prescription drug abuse is a particularly serious risk among senior citizens. Older individuals tend to take more medications in general, which increases the odds of medication mistakes or complications and unintentional substance abuse if dosage instructions aren’t closely followed. Aging also decreases people’s tolerance for medications, which means they may find themselves becoming dependent on prescription drugs at lower doses than younger individuals.

Acknowledging the Problem

The problem of addiction in older adults is often overlooked. A variety of factors contribute to the issue. Many healthcare providers don’t know what warning signs to look for when caring for aging patients; others might turn a blind eye to suspected cases of substance abuse, assuming that it’s not possible to successfully treat addiction at that age.

Even close friends and family members may unintentionally dismiss or overlook the signs of addiction in an older loved one. It’s easy to assume that a parent’s increased drinking is normal or acceptable because it’s related to boredom in retirement or perhaps is serving as a way of handling grief from a recent loss.

Getting Help

Addressing drug or alcohol addiction in a senior citizen is particularly important because the damaging effects of substance abuse are heightened in older individuals. After the age of 65, the brain’s ability to metabolize drugs and alcohol decreases, and the body becomes more sensitive to these substances. This makes drug and alcohol use riskier among senior citizens, even if a person isn’t suffering from a substance use disorder.

Fortunately, a number of treatment options are available to help older individuals break free of addiction. Support groups can help senior citizens build a network of friendship that doesn’t involve substance use, and therapy can be an effective way to get to the root of emotional issues that fuel substance abuse. Addiction treatment for older individuals should center on clear, respectful communication that acknowledges the cognitive changes that sometimes accompany aging.

Addiction is a disease that doesn’t discriminate. It affects people of all ages, races, and walks of life, and aging populations are no exception. Research suggests that at least 1 million older adults in the United States suffer from a substance use disorder. It’s essential for healthcare providers and loved ones to be aware of the warning signs of addiction. Overlooking the problem of addiction among older adults won’t make it go away, and treatment can be successful at any age.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK64422/
  2. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/report_2792/ShortReport-2792.html