Health & Medical

Substance Abuse in Seniors: Causes, Effects, and Signs

Substance Abuse Seniors

It’s a common misconception that substance abuse takes place primarily with the youth of the nation and the younger generations. However, there is a vast population of senior citizens that struggle with substance abuse. Substance abuse in the elderly population is often overlooked. This prevents those who need it from getting appropriate help for their dilemma.

In this topic, substance abuse refers to both elderly drug abuse and elderly alcohol abuse. What leads to substance abuse among the elderly? It seems that the elderly would be past the stage in life where they have this type of struggle. That is simply not the case.

5 Things You’re Never Too Old For

Why is there such substantial substance abuse in the elderly? What types of effects does this have? It is very challenging for the medical field to recognize and diagnose substance abuse because it’s often not a consideration. It can often be disguised by other health ailments.

Causes of Substance Abuse in Seniors

The primary form of substance abuse in seniors is elderly alcohol abuse; however, there are also concerns to be had about elderly drug abuse. In this case, drug abuse refers primarily to prescription drug abuse but is not limited to that category.

Elderly alcohol abuse continues to increase according to related studies, particularly amongst the female population over the age of 60. The current senior citizen population is comprised of individuals who are considered “baby boomers.”

The expectation is that individuals who drink alcohol heavily in their youth grow out of that habit. Unfortunately, studies show that those habits continue throughout life and are often challenging to break. Sometimes, substances are relief from reality, and it becomes a crutch for these individuals.

Unbeknownst to the general population, substance abuse specifically with alcohol is actually more common in senior citizens. Here is a list of some typical causes of substance abuse in seniors.

  • Pleasure
  • Relaxation
  • Avoidance of reality
  • Mind-numbing
  • Reduce stresses of life
  • Cope with medical ailments
  • Habit

This list is a basic list of reasons that a senior citizen might turn to drugs or alcohol. Many of these individuals have seen a lot of life. They do not identify themselves as substance abusers. They rather feel they are justified because of potential ailments they face and what they have seen or been through in their lifetimes.

Effects of Substance Abuse in Seniors

The effects of substance abuse in seniors are heightened by their age. While some might think age is just a number, the reality is that with age comes changes in our bodies. Our bodies react to the things that we consume and the things that we do.

Dementia Diagnosis: What You Should Know

Our bodies are more prone to ailments and disease as well as injury and organ failure as we age, and substance abuse can be a dangerous pastime for senior citizens. There can be detrimental effects when a senior citizen is involved in substance abuse that is significantly increased due to age.

Here is a list of common issues a senior citizen might face, and then we will discuss several of these in more detail.

  • The decreased metabolic threshold which increases sensitivity to substances
  • Decreased tolerance to substances
  • Natural illnesses and ailments that seniors are more susceptible do not react well with substance abuse
  • Legitimate prescription medications may not vibe with alcohol or drug use
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Memory Loss
  • Irritability
  • Increased injury status – more falls and bruises
  • Poor hygiene and self-care habits such as nutrition
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Tremors
  • Organ dysfunction

This list could continue indefinitely most likely. It is important to understand that while excessive drinking or drug use can have negative effects on any individual, those effects can be much worse for an individual that falls within the senior citizen age group (over age 65).

In an effort to be fully aware, let’s dig deeper into just a few of these items. In an effort to be fully aware, let’s dig deeper into just a few of these items.

Decreased Tolerance

As you age, your body’s tolerance to prescriptions, drugs, and alcohol significantly decreases. While 2 glasses of wine may not have had much effect on you in your youth, as you age your body’s reaction to the same amount of alcohol changes.

You may be affected more quickly and more heavily by partaking in any substance – drugs, alcohol, or prescriptions. Your body does not have the same muscle mass or processing capabilities as you age which makes you more susceptible to the effects that using these substances can cause for your body.

In senior citizens, your bodies are more prone to dehydration. Your body does not naturally retain as much water as it did when you were younger. Alcohol and some drugs dehydrate your body, and with the combination of your body’s changes plus the substance, you are more likely to become dehydrated to the point of needing medical attention.

High Blood Pressure

Various substances can have a significant impact on your heart health. A beginning factor to heart issues is high blood pressure. Drinking alcohol and partaking of drugs (whether prescription or not) can immediately heighten your blood pressure and force it to be high for an extended period.

It is not uncommon for this increase in blood pressure to lead to medical issues that require immediate medical care and can also result in further health issues or death. Some of the potential effects are heart attacks, heart disease, strokes, and heart failure.

Liver Health

It is a common known fact that using substances such as drugs or alcohol can have an astronomical effect on your liver. Your liver is one of the most susceptible organs when it comes to substance abuse. This is because it is the liver’s job to try to process these substances, but since they are foreign substances, the liver was not designed to do so.

However, your liver will function until it simply doesn’t. The liver may take extensive damage through years of substance abuse and you won’t know it’s not doing its job until it begins to fail. By the time the signs start to show, it may be too late to retract and improve your liver, especially if you are a senior citizen that has abused substances for an extended period of time.

Cirrhosis and liver disease are very common in cases where alcohol abuse has been in the picture. In fact, various liver ailments and diseases are one of the most common side effects of alcoholic behavior. The same can be said for drug abuse. These substances are extremely hard on the liver, and you may not know the damage until it’s too late.

Memory Loss

If you consider that short-term memory loss is common on drug or drinking binges, it makes sense that extensive substance abuse can lead to extensive memory loss in senior citizens. With the use of substances such as drugs, alcohol, or even prescriptions, your brain is drastically affected.

It is quite common that under the influence of various substances, one might experience memory loss for short periods of time, blackouts that you don’t remember happening, or blurred and spotty memory patterns.

Substance abuse harms the brain, whether you are young or advanced in years, and these effects can be detrimental, particularly as you age. Another severe side effect is the potential to experience early-onset dementia due to substance abuse at some point in your life.

Additionally, substance abuse can lead to psychosis-related issues, advancing your symptoms beyond those of merely memory loss or confusion.

Increased Injuries

One of the effects of substance abuse that you should be aware of is the potential to have an increased rate of injuries. This can stem from multiple places.

As a senior citizen, your body becomes more fragile than when you are young. Our bodies work on different dynamics, from our internal organs to our skin and hydration capacities. Substance abuse leaves your body more open to injuries, particularly easy bruising.

Substance abuse can lead to higher car accident rates, higher fall rates, and higher basic mishaps due to impaired judgment and reaction time from the substances that are in use. Unfortunately, many recognize the injury-prone side effects as a common effect of aging and fail to be able to diagnose that they are directly correlated to substance abuse.

Medication Adverse Reactions

Alcohol or drug use simply does not mix well with prescribed medications, particularly opioids. Any type of medicine that you take from common over-the-counter items like acetaminophen or aspirin to prescriptions provided by your doctor commonly have warnings that recommend not mixing other types of medicines, drugs, or alcohol.

The reason many of these medicines have warnings is they are not meant to be mixed with alternative substances such as drugs and alcohol and in fact, doing so could lead to hospitalization and in some cases death.

The use of substances other than the medication or medicinal product can negate the effects that are intended by the medicine or can cause overdose-type reactions. The chemical compounds are typically not meant to mix, and these labels and warnings should be taken very seriously to protect your own health.

Warning Signs of Senior Substance Abuse

Substance abuse in the elderly is extremely hard to diagnose. This may be due in part to the fact that most people want to believe a senior citizen would not be abusing various substances, but in keeping an open-mind, there are factors that can potentially help pinpoint whether you or a senior citizen you know, might be struggling with substance abuse.

7 Top Reasons I Don’t Like Seniors

Here is a list of many signs that you might want to watch for:

  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Depression
  • Excessive or unusual sleeping habits
  • Increase in noticeable bruises or injuries
  • Lack of focus and concentration
  • Memory loss
  • Headaches, dizziness, feeling unwell regularly
  • Lack of motivation to care for self – hygiene, nutrition, continence, etc.
  • Chronic pain
  • Financial struggles
  • Disconnect

These are common signs that could directly point to substance abuse issues, but these signs do not necessarily mean that a senior citizen in your life is dealing with substance abuse, but they are a good way to attempt to pinpoint an issue, specifically if something just doesn’t seem right with that individual.

Irritability and Mood Swings

Individuals struggling with substance abuse are prone to mood swings. They might experience intense anger and frustration, often when they are not feeling themselves or are desperate for their next substance use.

Additionally, confronting an individual that you suspect is fighting substance abuse could trigger anger and frustration as well. Often, these individuals are not willing to admit to their addictions and confronting them causes them to become defensive.

It is not in our nature to push, especially when a senior citizen is involved. Try to be mindful of the individual’s feelings and how unveiling a potential addiction could make them feel. Handle the situation respectfully to get them the help they need and deserve.

Excessive or Unusual Sleeping Habits

This particular effect is another symptom that makes diagnosing substance abuse challenging. Senior citizens commonly take naps and acquire unusual sleeping habits. However, you should determine whether these sleeping habits are taking place because of alternative issues such as substance abuse.

A good indicator of elderly substance abuse is sleeplessness at night and excessive sleeping throughout the day or simply just excessive sleeping throughout the day. The individual will seem unmotivated and will spend much of their time sleeping due to the feelings of the substances they are abusing.

Again, excessive sleeping does not always mean that substance abuse is involved, but it is a good indicator that might trigger the need to investigate further into the situation.

Headaches, Dizziness, Feeling Unwell

If you or a senior citizen you know suffers from frequent bouts of generally feeling unwell or routine headaches and dizzy spells, substance abuse might be occurring in their lives.

The feeling of not feeling well, as well as dizziness and headaches, can stem from the effects of the substances that are being abused. These substances are hard on the body, and abusing them can quickly deteriorate one’s health.

Additionally, when an individual’s substance begins to wear off, and their bodies are coming down from those effects, they will most likely suffer from many of these ailments and health nuances because their body goes into a need mode for those substances.

Financial Struggles

Financial struggles are again a touchy subject when it comes to determining whether substance abuse might be involved. Many senior citizens are extremely protective of their financial information and also will not speak up if they need financial help.

However, financial struggles could potentially be an indicator that something is going on that shouldn’t be. If someone who has been financially stable is now struggling, it means that something has changed in their situation. It could be an indication of unknown medical issues, or it could indicate that there is substance abuse involved.

Typically, if an individual has been able to manage without struggle financially, and there are no new circumstances or unexpected incidents that may have cost extra money, there would be an obvious explanation for financial struggles.

Again, this is a topic that must be approached delicately and respectfully as finances can be extremely personal and confidential. Look for signs of financial struggles or listen for it to come up in general conversation.

Help Is Available

Whether you or someone you know is experiencing signs that directly relate to substance abuse in the elderly, there are resources and help available.

No one has to be alone through this journey or through efforts to work through substance abuse. Reaching out for help can be challenging for senior citizens. They are often not willing to change or not willing to admit that there is a problem. Senior citizens become very adept at hiding their substance abuse characteristics.

Best Senior Websites on the Internet

However, it is important to be aware that if you are a senior citizen struggling with substance abuse or if you know a senior citizen that is struggling with substance abuse help can be as simple as a phone call away.

Here is a list of some types of resources available:

  • 24/7 Hotlines
  • Counseling
  • Medical Treatment
  • Rehab Facilities
  • Support Groups
  • Online Programs

Don’t hesitate to find a resource and reach out somewhere for help. With any of these locations or practices, confidentiality is heavily utilized, and you can keep this matter personal and private while you take the steps needed to help yourself.

It’s never too late to change, whether you’ve been using substances for your entire adult life or whether you’ve recently fallen into a struggle with substance abuse, know that this is not the solution. You can change, and you can find help if you are willing.

Entering rehabilitation processes, programs, or simply calling the hotline is your first step to helping yourself and quite possibly the most challenging step. Don’t give up, work through the process. You are worth it.



    This top-ranked site now has over 4,000 pages of humor, nostalgia, senior advocacy and useful information for seniors 50+. Updates weekly!

    The daily e-zine for everyone over 50 who feels way too young to be old.

    "...the perfect mix of Andy Rooney, Dave Barry, and Garrison Keilor, combining knee-slapping humor with useful information and genuine compassion."

    "Thousands look to and trust Suddenly Senior. Other Websites pale in comparison to the real-life, intimate look into senior lives. What sets apart Suddenly Senior is its blistering honesty and its incomparable encouragement. Millions need guidance."

    Suzette Martinez Standring

    "Best Senior Site ever on the Web! Great, up-to-date information on how seniors can save money on drugs. Wonderful nostalgia. Hard-hitting senior advocacy pieces that get read in high places. Wonderful humor. It's all at Suddenly Senior."


    Now read by 3.1 million in 83 newspapers from Florida's St. Petersburg Times to the Mumbai, India News.