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Drug and Alcohol Misuse in Older Adults

Many people think drinking too much and using drugs (alcohol and drug misuse) only affects teens and younger adults. But all ages can have problems with drugs and alcohol, including older adults. Older adults may use illegal drugs, prescription, or over-the-counter medicines in harmful ways. Or they may drink too much alcohol or mix alcohol and medicines. Doing any of these can cause serious health problems, and problems with money and the law. It also can harm relationships with family and friends.

Substance misuse in older adults may be overlooked because:

  • Older adults are more likely to drink too much or use drugs at home rather than in public

  • Older adults may not be active in a school or work environment where others may notice

  • Signs of misuse are similar to those found in health problems that many older adults have, such as depression and dementia

  • Caregivers of older adults may be aware of the problem but may not want to talk about it

Unhealthy drinking

Unhealthy drinking (alcohol misuse) is dangerous for all people, but it can be especially dangerous for older adults.

Older adults:

  • Have increased sensitivity to alcohol

  • Usually experience the effects of alcohol more quickly than when they were younger

  • Have higher risks for alcohol-related falls, car crashes, and other kinds of accidents or injuries

  • May be more likely to mix alcohol and medicine because they are taking so many medicines which can be dangerous or even fatal

In older adults, alcohol can trigger some health problems or make them worse. These health problems include high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, liver disease, anxiety, memory problems, congestive heart failure, osteoporosis, falls, sleep problems, and depression.

Experts suggest that adults age 65 and older do the following:

  • Have no more than 1 drink per day

  • Have no more than 2 drinks on any drinking occasion, such as New Year's Eve or weddings

  • Have no more than 7 drinks in a week

  • Not drink any alcohol, in some cases, depending on their health and medicines they take

Misusing medicine

Older adults often have to take many medicines. These can include benzodiazepines and opioids. Misusing these medicines can be an early sign of a developing a problem.

Signs of misuse or abuse of medicine are:

  • You take too much medicine or take medicine when you don't need to.

  • You use older medicines or another person's medicine.

  • You take medicine to feel good or "high." This happens most often with medicines used to treat conditions such as anxiety (benzodiazepines) or long-time (chronic) pain (opioids).

  • You take certain medicines (like opioids or sedatives) while drinking alcohol.

  • You don't take medicine as prescribed, such as not taking enough medicine or skipping doses.


Treatment for alcohol or drug problems (alcohol and drug misuse) in older adults can be the same treatment as for younger people. Detoxification, medicine, counseling, 12-step programs, and moderation programs may all may be used.

If a person is misusing medicine, sometimes talking with a healthcare provider, friend, or family member can help. Treatment could be as simple as learning more about your medicines and organizing how you take them. You may be able to work with your healthcare provider to cut back on how many medicines you take or make it easier to take them. 

Do you have thoughts about suicide?

If you or a loved one has thoughts about death or suicide, call 911 or the Veterans Crisis Line at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) and press 1, or use other emergency services. Or you can chat with a trained counselor online at

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 9/1/2019
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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