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Drug Abuse Among Older Adults On the Rise

This is a guest post by Annie Lynsen, on loan to AARP from Small Act.

When you picture a typical drug addict, what age is that person?

Pill Bottles

Probably not over 55. Yet drug and alcohol abuse among older adults is on the rise.

Between 1995 and 2002, the number of substance abuse treatment admissions for people 55 and older increased by 32 percent, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (2005).

Typically, older drug addicts aren't abusing "street" drugs like heroin or cocaine. They're abusing what's already in their medicine chests: prescription drugs. And they're not alone; more than 15 million people in the United States are abusing prescription drugs, which is more than the combined number of people abusing cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants and heroin. And lest you think this isn't a problem, overdose deaths associated with prescription drugs outnumber overdose deaths by all combined illicit drugs.

Furthermore, while about 10 percent of the nation's population abuses alcohol, that number jumps to as much as 17 percent when looking at adults 65 and older.

If you're concerned a parent or relative is abusing drugs or alcohol, be on the watch for certain behaviors:

  • Memory trouble after having a drink or taking a medication
  • Loss of coordination (walking unsteadily, frequent falls)
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Being unsure of themselves
  • Irritability, sadness, depression
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to stay alone much of the time
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty staying in touch with family or friends
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

If you notice some combination of these behaviors, talk to your parent's or relative's doctor about doing a screening test for substance abuse. You can also find programs for drug and alcohol abuse treatment on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website or by calling SAMHSA at 1-800-662-HELP.

Photo: Ron Chapple/Getty Images

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