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Substance Use Disorders in Older Adults

Table of Contents


People who have substance use disorder keep using alcohol or other substances even though it causes harm to themselves or others. People of all ages can have this disorder. They may misuse prescription or over-the-counter medicines, use marijuana or other drugs, drink too much alcohol, or mix alcohol and medicines. This can cause serious health problems and problems with money or the law. It also can harm their relationships.

Substance use disorder in older adults may be overlooked, because:


Alcohol use disorder can be dangerous for older adults. They:

In older adults, alcohol can trigger some health problems or make them worse. These include high blood pressure, ulcers, liver disease, anxiety, sleep problems, and depression.

Misuse of medicine

Older adults often have to take many medicines. This can easily lead to misuse of medicines. You misuse medicine when:

Warning signs of substance use disorder

Below are some warning signs that an older adult may have substance use disorder, including changes in behavior and mental abilities. But it's important to note that these signs may not be related to substance use disorder. Many of them also can be signs of health problems that some older adults have. These include mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety.

Drinking alcohol, misusing medicines, or using marijuana or other drugs often starts after a big change in a person's life. Retiring, the death of a spouse or good friend, leaving your home, or being diagnosed with a disease can trigger substance use. If a life-changing event happens to a loved one, watch for signs of substance use disorder.

If you notice any of these signs in someone you care about, talk to the person's doctor. Tell the doctor about the person's substance use, including misuse of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. Tell the doctor about any substance use in the person's past.

Changes in behavior

Signs that may point to substance use disorder include:

Changes in mental abilities

Other signs that may point to substance use disorder include:


Treatment for substance use disorder in older adults is the same as for younger people. It may include detox, counseling, therapy, and substance use education. Medicines are often used to help control cravings, ease withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse.

If you have a problem with prescription medicine, it may help to talk to a doctor. Treatment may include learning more about your medicines and organizing how you take them. You may be able to work with your doctor to cut back on how many medicines you take or make it easier to take them.

Treatment works best when you accept that you have a substance use disorder and you want to get better.

Credits for Substance Use Disorders in Older Adults

Current as of: March 21, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff (
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