A growing number of older adults are struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, experts tell The New York Times.
Alcohol abuse is the biggest problem among older adults, but the rate of illicit drug use among adults ages 50 to 64 is also on the rise.
"As we get older, it takes longer for our bodies to metabolize alcohol and drugs," D. John Dyben, the Director of Older Adult Treatment Services for the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, Florida, told the newspaper. "Someone might say, 'I could have two or three glasses of wine and I was fine, and now that I'm in my late 60s, it's becoming a problem.' That's because the body can't handle it."
Many older adults who drink are retired, the article notes. They may have lost a spouse, as well as their career, and feel they have no purpose. They may be lonely and depressed.
It can be difficult for doctors to differentiate between signs of chemical dependence, such as memory loss and disorientation, and normal signs of aging. Doctors often are not trained to discuss substance abuse with their older patients, or they don't have the time to conduct a thorough screening.
"There's this lore, this belief, that as people get older they become less treatable," said Paul Sacco, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, who researches aging and addiction. "But there's a large body of literature saying that the outcomes are as good with older adults. They're not hopeless. This may be just the time to get them treatment."
A report issued by the Institute of Medicine in 2012 concluded substance abuse is a growing problem among older Americans, and the nation's health care system is not prepared to adequately address the need. Up to one-fifth of Americans over age 65 have substance abuse or mental health conditions, according to the report.