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Older Americans Are More Prone to Substance Abuse

In 1998, government officials warned of a dire trend that we’ve only recently began to take note of. It wasn’t an asteroid hurtling toward earth or the ever-growing impact of humans on the climate. It was elder substance abuse.

In the late 1990s, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) already was predicting the drastic increase in alcohol and drug abuse among adults 60 years old and up.

Close to twenty years later, we don’t know much more than we did in 1998. Elder substance abuse is an increasingly common issue, though we don’t have many hard facts.

We do know that, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Addiction, there are approximately 2.8 million American adults over the age of 50 with substance abuse disorders.

Dr. Alison Moore, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at UCLA, speaking to, echoed this idea. She said, “It’s definitely an area in need of more understanding.”

Despite not having a large amount of information, there has been some research done on older adults and their chemical consumption.

The same 2008 study published in Addiction estimates there will be 5.7 million adults 50 years and older with a substance abuse disorder by 2020. That’s close to double the current number.

What about older adults receiving care for alcohol abuse in a hospital setting? Well, in 2012 alone, there were over 700,000 ER discharges for adults 65 and older. In the same year, there were 72,000 inpatient hospital admissions due to alcohol-related conditions.

It’s important to note that these nearly 800,000 hospital visits weren’t all directly due to alcoholism. Rather, these are the numbers for all visits related to alcohol. In other words, a senior citizen could have a drink with dinner, slip and fall, and go to the ER for a fractured hip.

What about the cost of all this care? Well, we know that Medicare costs have skyrocketed over the past several years. This number is expected to do nothing but rise. It’s estimated that Medicare will cost close to $9 trillion by the 2020s.

An ever-increasing number of seniors abusing drugs and alcohol and ever-increasing Medicare costs don’t paint a rosy picture.

There are also the long-term effects of alcohol to consider. Years of drinking can produce conditions related to liver disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, and predispose individuals to cancer. Years of drinking can also damage the mental health of individuals and may affect illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Finally, and linked to several of the areas above, many elderly adults are on prescription medications of all kinds. Warfarin, a popular blood thinner sold under the brand name Coumadin, and alcohol are dangerous to mix. If an older adult falls while drunk and is on Coumadin, their blood won’t clot.

What about seniors on prescription painkillers? Mixing opioids and alcohol is never a good idea, much less for a segment of the population whose health is fragile. This combination can lead to respiratory failure and liver damage, among other side effects.

Ultimately, there’s not that much information available about the prevalence of elder substance abuse or the dangers it entails. What is known, however, paints a rather bleak picture.

The good news is that recovery from drug and alcohol abuse is possible for anyone. This is as true for seniors as it is for addicts and alcoholics who’re under 21 years old. It’s that simple.


Han, B., Gfroerer, J.C., Colliver, J.D., & Penne, M.A., (12 Dec 2008). Substance use disorder among older adults in the United States in 2020. Retrieved from

Leonard, K. (13 May 2015). The Dangers of ‘Overage’ Drinking. Retrieved from

Greenspan, D. (19 Feb 2015). A Deadly Combination: Opioids & Alcohol. Retrieved from

Senior alcoholic photo available from Shutterstock

Older Americans Are More Prone to Substance Abuse

David Greenspan

David Greenspan's a media specialist at Chapters Recovery. He's written extensively about the world of addiction recovery for several years. He's also been sober since 2008 & finds nothing better than being able to help addicts & alcoholics who are still struggling with this disease.

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APA Reference
Greenspan, D. (2018). Older Americans Are More Prone to Substance Abuse. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 1 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.