July 2023

The Hidden Danger of Addiction Among Older Adults

When you think of aging-related diseases, heart disease and dementia probably come to mind. But now, startling statistics suggest another danger for older adults: drug and alcohol addiction.


In the past 20 years, drug overdose deaths more than tripled among Americans ages 65 and older. And alcohol-induced fatalities have been climbing since 2011.

Currently, about 1 million adults in this age group struggle with addiction. If you’re one of them—or worried you’re heading in that direction—know that it’s never too late to make a change. Getting help now can add life to your years and years to your life.

Understanding the biology

Addiction is often considered a young person’s problem. But older adults face risks because:

  • With age, brains can become more sensitive to drugs’ effects.

  • More than 9 in 10 have a chronic health problem, and prescription drugs for these conditions can interact or be addictive.

  • Grief, isolation, and other negative emotions—especially after major, emotional life changes—can lead to using substances to cope.

  • Symptoms might be mistaken for other age-related conditions. For example: Confusion, mood changes, fatigue, or falls could all be linked to substance misuse.

Forging a new path

Recognizing that alcohol or other drugs interfere with your daily life is one thing. Making changes to shift long-ingrained habits is another.

Lean on your healthcare provider for support and guidance during this time. To help you open up and prioritize recovery:

  • Be honest. Providers are used to dealing with sensitive topics—and they can only help if they know what’s happening. Say something like, “Lately, I’ve been wanting a drink earlier in the day, and then I can’t stop. What treatments could help?” or, “I don’t want to become dependent on opioids. What other ways can I manage my pain?

  • Bring up all your symptoms. Mention behavior changes, such as being irritable or not sleeping well, even if you don’t think they’re related. They might help your provider see the full picture.

  • Request a drug review. Ask your provider or pharmacist to check all your prescriptions. Are any addictive? Also, tell them all the other substances you use, including alcohol, drugs, and supplements.

Remember, addiction affects millions of people—it’s not something you should feel ashamed about. Reaching out is the first step to getting treatment that can restore your health and prolong your life.




Online Medical Reviewer: Brian McDonough, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Ray Turley, MSN, BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2023
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