Substance Abuse

Most drugs and other chemical substances are helpful when used properly. Unfortunately, the misuse of medications and drugs—both legal and illegal, as well as alcohol and tobacco—is a growing problem in the older population. The terms “drug abuse” or “substance abuse” is defined as the use of chemical substances that lead to an increased risk of problems and an inability to control the use of the substance.

Dependence on a drug or alcohol (getting “hooked”) is particularly dangerous in older people because older adults tend to have more harmful effects from these substances than younger people. These effects include mental problems, kidney and liver disease, and injuries from falls. Dependence can occur even in older people who have never had an addiction problem before.

Many older adults take a lot of different medications every day. These drugs may interact in a harmful way, or react with alcohol to cause problems. These problems might be mistakenly thought of as normal signs of aging, but they are not.

With some drugs, your body needs increasingly higher doses to get the original effect, or you may feel withdrawal symptoms when the drug is stopped. This is referred to as drug “tolerance” meaning that the drug makes your body change in these ways. Even small doses of certain substances may be enough to create a dangerous need for more. Also, a drug that is beneficial when first prescribed may become harmful when other drugs are added, or when there is a change in your health. 

Many different organ systems can be damaged by substance abuse and substance abuse has a big effect on society as well. Substance abuse has negative effects on how you feel about yourself, how you manage problems or changes in your life, and your relationships.  This can add to other challenges that are common in later life.

People abuse substances such as drugs, alcohol, and tobacco for varied and complicated reasons, but it is clear that our society pays a significant cost. The toll for this abuse can be seen in our hospitals and emergency departments through direct damage to health by substance abuse and its link to physical trauma. Jails and prisons tally daily the strong connection between crime and drug dependence and abuse. Although use of some drugs such as cocaine has declined, use of other drugs such as heroin and “club drugs” has increased.