Older Adults and Drug Addiction

Older Adults and Drug Addiction

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine recently released a study on the problems associated with people over 50 with substance use disorders. Although many people who suffer from substance use disorders have coexisting mental health issues that must be addressed along with the addiction issues, older adults are much more likely than younger people to have coexisting serious medical problems that can complicate drug rehabilitation. The center that I write for is in Panama City, Florida. Drug rehab centers in Florida are even more likely than other drug treatment centers to treat older patients, so I was interested to look at a few studies on the subject. The first was originally published in the New England Journal of Medicine. That study looks at older patients with alcohol-use disorder, prescription drug misuse, and illicit drug use disorders, including cocaine dependence. 

The other study I looked at was on the same topic, substance abuse disorders in older adults, but it specifically looked at the co-morbidity, or the condition of having more than one disease, with one of those diseases being a substance use disorder. Both studies mention the same basic problem, not only is substance abuse exploding in the world population, the age people live to, on average, is also increasing. The study from the International Journal of Epidemiology puts the problem this way,

“Globally, adults aged 65 years or older will increase from 516 million in 2009 to an estimated 1.53 billion in 2050. Due to substance use at earlier ages that may continue into later life, and aging-related changes in medical conditions, older substance users are at risk for substance-related consequences.”

Of course, these issues only exist if people who are suffering from disorders involving alcohol and opiates, which often claim many lives of younger people, live long enough to reach the ages that are looked at in these studies. Opiates present the issue of overdose, which is killing more people every year as fentanyl-related deaths become more common. Alcohol presents a range of deadly outcomes for people addicted to it, including deaths on the motorways and health problems such as liver disease. Of the older population studied, the participants used alcohol at a rate of about 60%, and other illicit drugs at comparatively lower rates. However, both studies found both health-related comorbidity and psychiatric related comorbidity. The study from the International Journal of Epidemiology found that, 

“Older drug users in methadone maintenance treatment exhibited multiple psychiatric or medical conditions. There have been increases in treatment admissions for illicit and prescription drug problems in the United States.”

In fact, all the issues raised in the two studies seem to be on the rise amongst older adults, and other numbers that we have observed on this blog have proven that substance abuse is becoming more common among young people at an alarming rate as well. As more young people become victims of the opiate crisis, and the ongoing addiction crisis, more older people will eventually face older adulthood with the added concern of a history of substance abuse. Drug rehabs in Florida are certainly one of the front lines in this fight, but I personally know that great people are working hard every day to turn things in a better direction.

By Tim Cannon



Lehmann SW, Fingerhood M. Substance-Use Disorders in Later Life. N Engl J Med. 2018;379(24):2351-2360. doi:10.1056/NEJMra1805981

Wu LT, Blazer DG. Substance use disorders and psychiatric comorbidity in mid and later life: a review. Int J Epidemiol. 2014;43(2):304-317. doi:10.1093/ije/dyt173