substance abuse symptoms in the elderly

How to Tell if Grandad’s Popping Pills

Alcohol and prescription drug misuse are common forms of drug abuse in the elder population, but short interventions can help.

How to Tell if Grandad’s Popping Pills

Substance abuse among seniors is higher than you think.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Sometimes, the golden years can seem very dark. Losing loved ones, isolation, and growing older drive a significant portion of the elder population to abuse alcohol, illicit drugs, and prescription and over-the-counter medications. This type of behavior is often overlooked at regular doctor’s office visits, but a Florida state-funded screening and intervention program that focuses on detecting and treating elderly drug abuse with several short sessions in their homes or senior centers has proved effective. The results of the program were just published in the American Journal of Public Health. “In most cases, depressive symptoms, loneliness, and boredom often precede alcohol consumption,” explains study author Lawrence Schonfeld, PhD, professor and chair of the University of South Florida’s department of aging and mental health disparities at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute. “It is likely they are the same triggers for intentional misuse of medications, as well as illicit drug use.”

THE DETAILS: Research suggests substance abuse in older adults isn’t easily detected during regular doctor’s appointments, so Schonfeld and colleagues, who created the Florida Brief Intervention and Treatment for Elders (BRITE) project, screened nearly 3,500 residents over a three-year period in their homes or at senior centers. The average age was 75. After the older adults completed the screening interviews, researchers found that 26 percent misused prescriptions, nearly 10 percent were referred to intervention treatment for potential alcohol problems, and 40 people, about 1 percent, used illicit drugs. Nearly 17 percent of those interviewed couldn’t remember how many medications they took. Nearly 65 percent of the adults also tested positive for depression. Levels of depression, alcohol, and drug abuse and misuse dropped after five brief in-home intervention sessions, in which patients were given instruction about how to properly use their prescribed medications. This pilot study helped secure a federally funded grant to expand the program to 15 counties in Florida.

WHAT IT MEANS: Substance abuse among the elderly has been dubbed a hidden national epidemic. While about 10 percent of the nation’s population abuses alcohol, that number jumps to as much as 17 percent when looking at adults 65 and older, according to previous surveys. It’s estimated that 2.5 million older adults suffer from alcohol-related problems. Some drank heavily their entire lives, but some turned to abusing substances later in life, sparked by retirement, death, separation from a family member, friend, or pet, along with concerns over health, trouble sleeping, or fights with family. Older adults’ bodies absorb alcohol quickly, and complications arise when drinks are mixed with prescription and over-the-counter medications. According to the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, mixing prescription and over-the-counter drugs and alcohol can slow blood flow to organs, increase risk of falls and fractures (especially with drugs like Valium), and cause confusion that could lead to accidentally overdosing.


Published on: June 17, 2009

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