By Brian N. Talleur, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, Aegis Treatment Centers, a Pinnacle Treatment Center Network
Substance abuse and addiction can affect everyone, and it looks different in every person that is touched by it. You might have a preconceived idea of what an “addict” looks like, but the reality is that these individuals are frequently able to hide their addiction in plain sight and signs of addiction are often overlooked by their friends and family.
One group of people that are often overlooked is older adults. When you think of an “addict,” older individuals probably aren’t the first group that comes to mind, but there is a growing trend of more and more adults falling victim to substance abuse and addiction. 2018 data shows nearly one million adults 65 and older suffering from substance abuse issues.
Dangers of Addiction in the Elderly
Addiction prevention is normally focused on the young. We know that substance abuse in adolescents can cause lasting damage as their bodies and brains are still developing. But there is also the potential for unique risks and damages to aging bodies and brains when it comes to elder addiction.
Older adults are already faced with changes in their aging bodies. As they grow older, they are at a higher risk for mood disorders, lung and heart problems, and memory issues.
Adding substance abuse addiction to these issues can only heighten and amplify that risk. Additionally, older adults typically metabolize substances more slowly. This means that it takes longer for some chemicals and toxins in drugs to be flushed from their system. Their low metabolism puts them at an increased risk of brain or organ damage.
Types of Addiction
Addiction takes many different forms. It isn’t always about illicit illegal drugs. In older adults, it’s more often about abusing legal substances. Here are some of the most common addictions and substance abuse problems older adults experience, as well as the unique risks they pose.
Alcohol is the most-used drug among Medicare-age adults. It is so prevalent that 65% of older adults report that they have exceeded daily guidelines for alcohol consumption at least once a week. What’s even more shocking about alcohol usage in older adults is that more than 10% report they binge drink (five or more drinks on the same occasion for men, four or more drinks for women).
Alcoholism is a dangerous addiction at any age, but the elderly are faced with additional complications with:
- Blood pressure
- Congestive heart failure
- Liver problems
- Memory issues
- Mood disorders
As we all age, we are faced with chronic health conditions. While prescription medication should be monitored and maintained by a physician, there is a growing trend of older adults mixing prescription medicines, nonprescription drugs, and dietary supplements. This is so prevalent that at least 1 in 25 older adults is at risk for a major drug interaction.
Opioid Pain Medicines
Almost 4% of the population misuse opioids. Opioids include illicit drugs like heroin and prescription drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine. These prescription drugs are often the bigger problem—while only 808,000 people used heroin in 2018, 9.9 million people misused prescription pain relievers.
Older adults who are abusing opioid pain medicines are more likely to experience:
- Cognitive impairment
- Bladder dysfunction
- Respiratory depression
- Psychiatric disorders
An additional hidden risk of opioid addiction is the high potential for a wide range of complications when opioids are mixed with other prescriptions and substances. These risks can drastically change depending on the amounts mixed and the health of the user. Risks of mixing opioid medications with other substances can include slowed breathing, decreased heart rate, and death.
Both recreational and prescription marijuana can be abused by older adults, and 4.2% of older adults actively use marijuana or other cannabis products. Even though recreational usage is legal in some states, it still comes with risks.
Cannabis carries with it a risk of increased heart rate and blood pressure. An older adult with an underlying coronary disease could be at risk for coronary syndrome or arrhythmia. There is also a risk for:
- Chronic respiratory conditions
- Impaired memory
- Adverse cardiovascular functions
- Altered judgment and motor skills
Cannabis brings with it additional risks because of its chemical makeup. The most notable active chemicals in marijuana are THC and CBD, but there are about 600 other chemical structures present in marijuana.
While other prescriptions or medications might not have a severe interaction with THC or CBD, there are still 600 other chemicals that they can potentially interact with, with varying degrees of risk and side effects.
Substance abuse and addiction treatment involve more than stopping the habit. Even for those who are looking for addiction treatment on Medicare, there is something much deeper happening in the patient. Substance abuse is only a symptom. Focusing solely on trying to stop the habit of abuse would be like ignoring a patient’s fractured leg and only treating their fever.
Recovery involves identifying the emotional and physical triggers that make an individual want to revert back to their addiction, while also addressing their underlying issues.
While it is possible to reach sobriety alone, it is extremely difficult. The best way to have lasting success and sobriety is through support groups, accountability, behavioral therapy, and medication when appropriate.
Aegis Treatment Centers Can Help You
Going to 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or any other variation can be a great way to get support and help in taking the first steps toward recovery, but if you’re serious about changing your life for the better, one of the best ways to do it is with professional help. Addiction takes over and affects all aspects of life, and to really understand it and move past it, the help of a trained professional is crucial.
Finding an addiction rehab that accepts Medicare can feel impossible. You want help, but you may well be on a fixed income and don’t want to have to go bankrupt to afford a healthier life. The challenge is that most facilities and treatment options are expensive, or don’t accept Medicare.
You can get help. Your addiction does not have to control you or your life. At Aegis Treatment Centers, we accept Medicare, making it easy for you to find the help you need. We can help you get your life back without your addiction. Call us today to see how we can help you live the life you want and regain freedom from addiction and substance abuse.