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Cognitive Consequences of Substance Abuse in Elderly Adults

The relationship between the elderly and substance abuse can be quite dangerous, especially because it is hard to diagnose a substance abuse problem in an older adult. Alcohol and prescription opioids can have severe consequences for elderly adults. These can range from behavioral issues to physical health problems. In this post, we will review what you need to know about substance abuse and older adults.

Substance Abuse in Elderly Statistics

According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health — which the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducted — nearly 1 million adults aged 65 years or older (2% of all senior citizens) reported a substance use disorder. The survey found that alcohol and prescription opioids are the two most commonly abused substances among seniors. Other survey results included:

  • 10.7% of seniors reported binge drinking in the last month.

  • 2.5% of seniors reported heavy alcohol use in the last month.

  • 1.6% of seniors reported having an alcohol abuse disorder.

  • 1.3% of seniors reported misuse of opioids during the past year.

  • 0.5% of seniors reported misuse of tranquilizers during the past year.

  • 0.4% of seniors reported misuse of benzodiazepines during the past year.

  • 0.2% of seniors reported misuse of sedatives during the past year.

Causes of Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Personal problems and health problems can often trigger substance misuse in the elderly. Below are a few emotional and physical circumstances that cause substance abuse in older adults.

  • Conflicts within the family

  • Death of a family member, pet, or close friend

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Financial strain

  • Loss of purpose

  • Mental and/or physical health decline (depression, memory loss, major surgeries, and other problems)

  • Relocation/placement in nursing home

  • Retirement

Download Our Guide to Dealing With Elderly Anger

Next up, let’s review the cognitive consequences of substance abuse in senior citizens.

Consequences of Substance Abuse in Elderly

The relationship between older adults and substance use disorders can lead to various consequences. Unfortunately, alcohol and drug abuse can often mimic the signs of old age, making it hard to diagnose these symptoms in older adults. Some of the physical and cognitive consequences of substance abuse in the elderly include:

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Difficulty focusing or making decisions

  • Failing to eat as much and changes to what and how you eat

  • Frequent falling

  • Headaches and dizziness

  • Loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed

  • Memory issues

  • Mood swings

  • Poor hygiene

  • Social withdrawal from family and friends

  • Suicidal ideation

  • Urinary incontinence

Now that we know more about the dangers of substance abuse in the elderly, let’s take a look at geriatric substance abuse treatment.

Treatment for Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Treating substance abuse disorders is not a one-size-fits-all approach. American Addiction Centers offered these general options for getting your elderly loved one on a path to recovery:

  • Intervention: Arrange a meeting between loved ones — and potentially a professional — and the individual to address concerns.

  • Age-specific and mixed-age addiction treatment programs: Check facilities to see if they have treatment programs, specifically for their peers since it will be easier for them to relate to others.

  • Medical detox: Speak to your doctor about methods to safely remove drugs and alcohol from their system. This is especially useful if they suffer from severe withdrawal symptoms.

  • Residential or outpatient treatment: Look for age-specific programs for 12-step processes, therapy, training workshops, and other options.

Recovery support and relapse prevention: Find support groups so they can receive help should they relapse or need support to stay off of substances entirely.

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