Substance Abuse Among Seniors Is On The Rise—What We Can Do

As the first wave of Baby Boomers approach 70, substance abuse among older people continues to rise. While four out of five seniors who seek substance-abuse treatment do so for alcohol versus other drugs, according to the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD), prescription drug abuse is increasing, especially among women turning to Xanax, Klonopin, or Valium. 

Still, addiction is often difficult to diagnose in this age group, because, not only are some of the signs of abuse similar to signs of aging—memory loss, depression, behavioral changes—“many of the drugs they are abusing have been prescribed,” says psychiatrist Richard Catanzaro, MD, of Northern Westchester Hospital. “So when and if we are testing for drug abuse, physicians are not finding illicit drugs—only the ones that we are prescribing.” 

According to the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information, roughly 17 percent of adults 60 and older abuse prescription drugs, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that 4.7 percent (4.3 million) of  “older adults” have used an illegal drug in the past year. One reason for the abuse may be loneliness. “The same isolation that may have contributed to the drug abuse also works to complicate treatment,” says Dr. Catanzaro. “Without the support of family and peers, recovery may be difficult.” 

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Another factor is often poor sleep. “I can’t stress enough how big a problem insomnia presents in this age group,” says David Janeway, DO, a psychiatrist with WESTMED. “Sleep patterns change due to menopause, prostate issues, and aging effects overall. There’s less deep sleep—and sleep plays a huge role in our mental health.” It’s vital for doctors to “remain vigilant” in noticing signs of substance abuse—which, according to NIHSeniorHealth, can also include requests for frequent prescription refills and “doctor shopping”—says Dr. Catanzaro, and connecting patients to addiction specialists. SAMHSA has a 24-hour hotline (800-662-HELP), and there are several 12-step programs in Westchester for substance-abuse recovery, such as Jewish Home Lifecare’s Sarah Neuman Center in Mamaroneck. 

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