Underage drinking has been consistently recognized as being a major phenomenon in the United States, where an estimated 50 percent of children ages 12-20 have consumed alcohol. Little talked about, however, is the issue of “overage drinking,” which affects millions of Americans each year.
The Epidemic of Drug and Alcohol Abuse Among Seniors
For nearly 20 years, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has made the argument that ignoring this seemingly invisible epidemic may have severe consequences–warning that alcohol and prescription drug abuse among adults 60 years and older were among the fastest-growing health concerns facing the country.
While there has been a huge focus on underage drinking patterns, much is still unknown about the severity of these issues among the senior population.
“Very few [doctors] are switched on to the idea that their older patients could be drinking at these levels–we all look out for it in younger patients, but we are less attuned to it in the elderly,” King’s College Professor Mark Ashworth tells the Washington Post.
What makes this trend even more worrisome is the fact that the healthcare system is already overburdened by those suffering from chronic health conditions. By the year 2020, boomers–who tend to drink more than generations previous–will have doubled the number of adults 50 or older with a substance abuse disorder, from 2.8 million in 2006 to 5.7 million. Elderly populations with substance abuse disorders may have a harder time finding available and affordable treatment.
“Even leaving aside the heavier drinking of baby boomers, the growing population of Americans over age 65 will be felt in emergency departments and inpatient hospital departments,” Ellen Meara, an associate professor at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice tells U.S. News.
When you do add in alcohol related issues, however, the strain on hospitals does rise.
According Meara, “Inpatient hospital admissions for patients 65 and older are expected to roughly double over 2012 levels, when there were 729,000 emergency department discharges among that age group for alcohol-related diagnoses and 72,000 admissions to inpatient hospital departments for the same types of conditions.”
Why Do Seniors Become Addicted?
The long term effects of alcohol and drug abuse can manifest in a number of ways as people age. For elderly people, these effects are demonstrable in a number of ways, including liver disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and certain kinds of cancer.
The reasons behind their addictive disorders are varied and unique. While some may use alcohol and drugs to deal with the loss of loved ones, others may do so out of boredom, or may simply being continuing patterns of abuse that have existed for many years. Since alcoholism is a “disease of denial” doctors and individuals may look the other way when it comes to diagnosis and treatment.
How Rehab Differs for Seniors
While it is difficult for many seniors to receive an appropriate diagnosis, the elderly may also have a harder time finding treatment that works for them, as rehabilitation for elderly populations is typically different than treatment for younger individuals, according to experts.
“Rehab can be subtly different for the elderly because addictive behaviors in younger people is seen by some as a more urgent problem that is easier to fix,” note the recovery specialists at Beachside Rehab, a U.S. based private drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. “Understanding the motivation for the elderly to use and abuse drugs or alcohol is key to designing the right rehab program.”
On the whole, seniors are less likely to use hard illegal drugs, as they are typically uninterested in the high or rush that young people are. Instead, Beachside notes, “Seniors are usually driven by a need to mask physical and psychological symptoms.”
It is, however, a problem that all can agree is worth addressing, no matter the age of the individual involved.
“I’ve seen people quit in their late 70s–they can do really well,” writes Dr. Nicholas Pace. “I have seen people look 10 years younger.”
As Pace concludes with U.S. News concludes: seniors don’t and should not have to die from this disease.
Danika McClure is a musician and writer from the Northwest who is passionate about social justice and education.