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Survey Gives Insight Into Substance Abuse Among Older Adults

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A spotlight has been put on older adults misusing drugs and alcohol, and a new survey sheds some light on this growing issue in the United States.
Results from a survey conducted by the Hanley Center, a drug and alcohol treatment and recovery center, suggest depression and anxiety are the main reasons for older adults abusing drugs and alcohol, according to a press release.
Economic and financial stress, as well as retirement issues, were other reasons leading to alcohol and drug problems.
The survey also found that about half of participants abused alcohol and prescription drugs out of all possible substances. In fact, 90 percent of survey participants said alcohol is one of the substances they abused, and about 50 percent stated they abused prescription drugs.
Forty percent of the participants reported that they started abusing substances after age 48, and 79 percent starting using drugs and alcohol before 25.
The 100 participants used in the survey are alumni of the Hanley Center who are over 48 years old, said Dr. Barbara Krantz, the medical director and medical director of research at Hanley Center, in an email.
The last of the results showed that over 40 percent of alumni who participated in the survey decided to pursue treatment partially due to family influence, according to the press release.
Krantz, who is an expert on the prescription pain medication epidemic and the disease of addiction, said she has seen a rising number of older adults get treatment, and she expects the number will double by 2020 because of the aging Baby Boomers.
“As older adults enter a transitional stage in their lives, new stressors such as financial strain, grieving the loss of a parent or age-related health issues, make them more prone to depression and anxiety,” Krantz said.
“Without the proper tools to manage their emotions, these older adults may turn to quick fixes such as alcohol and drugs, which can ultimately lead to dependency.”
Older adults who are substance abusers can have even more harmful health side effects because of the other diseases and disorders they are exposed to as part of the aging process. However, there are solutions available.
“The key to getting addicted boomers and seniors on the road to recovery is developing customized treatment programs that are tailored to the unique personality traits and behavioral patterns of older Americans,” Krantz said.
“At Hanley Center, we understand that addiction affects each person differently, and that life experiences and their impact vary among people as they get older (i.e. early retirement, loss of a loved one, smaller incomes).”
Kevin Roberts, the author of “Movers, Dreamers and Risk Takers: Unlocking the Power of ADHD,” said in an email that genetics is actually the main reason people start abusing drugs and alcohol. The way the brain is wired can predispose certain people to addiction, and this is even more likely for people with parents who suffer from alcoholism.
“DNA, however, is not destiny,” Roberts said. “Even people whose brains and genetic makeup put them at high risk for developing an addiction may not ever do so.”
People can also struggle with different mental disorders at the same time, such as ADHD and substance abuse, or depression and substance abuse.
“Simply, there are atypical brain profiles that predispose some of us to addiction and other problems,” Roberts said. “When things are going well, we may be able to cope effectively, but as stressors accumulate, like the financial meltdown, it may throw us over the edge, and overburden our ability to effectively cope.”
Clare Waismann, a registered addiction specialist and administrative director of WAISMANN METHOD treatment, which is a treatment for opiate dependency, said in an email that she is not surprised by the results because at the treatment center she works at, older adults used prescription opiates at one point for actual pain they were experiencing.
For some, the situation got out of hand when they eventually began to use the drugs to manage emotional and psychological issues like depression and anxiety.
“People turn to substance abuse because they are looking to escape or avoid reality, this is true for any age group,” Waismann said. “Prescription painkillers are just more accessible to mature adults because prescribing physicians generally trust this age group. In most cases, doctors believe Boomer patients when they complain about physical pain, and willingly prescribe them painkillers.”
Michael Pratt, the lead certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor at the Dunes East Hampton, a residential care rehabilitation center, said in an email that older adults might have more of an issue abusing drugs and alcohol because they have a tendency to let themselves go after a certain age. Many have already used different substances at some point so they return to a familiar coping method.
“There is a ‘what do I have to lose’ attitude in the older generation,” Pratt said. “Most are retired and don’t have to worry about the early morning hangover, since they do not need to wake up early for work. Also the aspect of futility, giving up, grieving, and medical issues leave older adults less concerned about the damage they are doing to their bodies.”
Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology, said in an email that older adults are already prone to some psychological issues like depression and other mood disorders, and aging and substance use can make for a complicated combination in the brain. In addition, there are sometimes more problems in general for older adults to worry about, and less support.
“Getting older in the United States is stressful – health care is expensive, many people do not have financial safety nets, old age can carry greater health related problems, and as such, the use of drugs and alcohol may at some level represent a response to a far more stressful world in which to be older in,” Durvasula said.
“We also do not have the same fabric of intergenerational care – children taking care of parents – that we once saw since, families are spread thin and wide – sometimes just an extra pair of eyes on someone can help mitigate some of these kinds of problems.”
Older adults already have less acute cognitive abilities, and drugs and alcohol can impair these even more.
“Because drugs and alcohol often contribute to more rapid cognitive decline or have independent contributions to cognition – and our brains do not do as well with any toxins or injuries as we age – the concern of these statistics to me are their impact on cognitive functioning, which can in turn have major implications for decision making, self care, and quality of life in older adults,” Durvasula said.

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