May 27, 2020

Four Reasons Why Older Adults Struggle with Addiction

If it seems like more older adults are having issues with addiction than in generations past, you'd be right, says Harry Haroutunian, physician director of the Professionals Program at the Betty Ford Center and author of Not As Prescribed: Recognizing and Facing Alcohol and Drug Misuse in Older Adults (Hazelden, 2016). 

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Americans who are 65 and older make up only 13 percent of the population, yet they account for more than one-third of the total outpatient spending on prescription medications. 

Haroutunian, in a column for The Desert Sun, gives four reasons for why addiction among older adults has reached an all-time high. 

  1. There are more people reaching retirement age than ever before. Up to 10,000 baby boomers reach age 65 every day.
  2. Many of the people reaching retirement age experimented with illegal drugs growing up. “As boomers age, become empty nesters and retire, many find it easy, even natural, to begin using drugs again,” Haroutunian says. “They are usually prompted by a stressor—and there are many stressors as we age: boredom, health problems, financial worries, death of a spouse, caretaking responsibilities—the list goes on.”
  3. The U.S. is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic.
  4. Many older adults are used to treating pain with drugs. For years, doctors have been telling them to just pop an ibuprofen for their back pain. Additionally, as the boomers age, they must learn to cope with feelings of loneliness or depression. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain.

But there is hope, Haroutunian says. 

“I know people in their 90s whose lives have been restored thanks to treatment and Alcoholics Anonymous,” he says. 


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