More older adults struggle with substance use disorder

Cathy Brownfield

There is an epidemic we don’t hear much about. There is just no denying that aging has its issues. But for some older adults, things become even more complicated. This issue is substance use disorder (SUD) which often is unintentional, often misdiagnosed and untreated because some of the symptoms mock signs of conditions associated with aging.


We will share some information and resources for you to read further. There is a lot more information available now than a decade ago, but there are still questions that need to be answered.

According to 2018 data, nearly 1 million adults age 65 and older live with a substance use disorder, says NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) at the National Institutes of Health in an article titled“Substance Use in Older Adults Drug Facts.”

Older adults metabolize substances more slowly. The older adult brain is more sensitive to drugs, more likely to experience mood disorders, lung and heart problems and memory issues, the article advises. Drugs can make these problems worse. Combining medications and dietary supplements can also have negative effects.

NIDA cites, “one study of 3,000 adults aged 57-85 showed common mixing of prescription medications, non-prescription drugs and dietary supplements. More than 80 percent of participants used at least one prescription medication daily, with nearly half using more than five medications or supplements putting at least one in 25 people in this age group at risk for major drug-drug interaction.”


Have you just run through your mental checklist of your daily medication/supplement regimen? FRC sees the increase in substance use disorder among our older adult population, particularly with alcohol and marijuana.

NIDA says, “Regular marijuana use for medical or other reasons at any age has been linked to chronic respiratory conditions, depression, impaired memory, adverse cardiovascular functions, and altered judgement [sic] and motor skills. Marijuana can interact with a number of prescription drugs and complicate already existing health issues and common physiological changes in older adults.”

A PDF document at SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) titled “TIP 26” is designed to help providers and others to better understand how to identify, manage and prevent substance misuse in older adults.

If you have wondered if a loved one who has been diagnosed with dementia might actually be affected by their medications, this is a conversation you need to have with your doctor. Ask your questions.

The key messages from SAMHSA include:

–Substance misuse in older adults is often overlooked and undertreated.

–Substance use disorder treatment should be age appropriate, adapted to older adults.

–Screening and assessment also should be age appropriate.

–Substance misuse can worsen normal age-related cognitive (thinking and reasoning) changes.

–Alcohol is the most used drug for older adults with substance use disorder.

–It is important for everyone – professionals, families, caregivers – to know the signs and symptoms of substance misuse to assure the best care going forward.

–Isolation is bad for everyone. Social support is important.

–Stigma has lessened over the passing of time, but there are still barriers that hold older adults back from asking for help.

To learn more from these sources, go online to search for the title, “Substance Use in Older Adults Drug Facts.” More information is found at and–2792/ShortReport-2792.html.

For help or more information, contact Family Recovery Center, 964 N. Market St., Lisbon; phone, 330-424-1468. Visit the website at FRC is funded in part by Columbiana County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board.