As the number of people over the age of 60 in the United States grows, physicians and social services workers have taken notice of the increasing number of senior citizens who suffer from some type of addiction.

The National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information reports that 17% of people age 60 or older are addicted to prescription drugs. Tampa Bay Online reports that three million American seniors are addicted to drugs or alcohol. As the baby boomers age, those numbers are expected to increase, potentially reaching nine million by 2020.

Not surprisingly, seniors who battled drug or alcohol abuse earlier in life are more likely to abuse drugs as senior citizens, often requiring friends, family, and physicians to carefully monitor the prescription drug use of these seniors. While seniors may also suffer from addictions to gambling, technology, and hoarding, they most often suffer from drug and alcohol dependence.

Physicians, assisted living communities, and family members have discovered that in addition to alcohol, the most common drugs abused include narcotic pain killers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers. Seniors are often prescribed these medications for legitimate medical purposes. However, while taking these medications, seniors may develop a tolerance for the drugs, but be afraid of reporting that tolerance to their physicians, leading to self-medication.

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Consequences of Alcohol and Drug Addiction in Senior Citizens

The consequences of alcohol and drug abuse in seniors are similar to those in the younger population, but these repercussions may be overlooked as they mirror expected events as people grow older.

Senior citizens who abuse drugs and/or alcohol often suffer from a loss of mental clarity and a loss of independence. Additionally, these seniors are more likely to suffer pain and illness and be admitted to the hospital.

Some family members may see illness, hospital admissions, and pain as a natural part of growing older, rather than as the result of drug or alcohol abuse. Often, if drug and alcohol abuse is responsible for the illness, injury, or loss of mental acuity, when the abuse is treated, the senior returns to a normal psychological and physical state.


Family members or friends who are concerned about senior drug or alcohol abuse may want to look for the following symptoms:

  • Seniors drinking alone rather than with others may indicate alcoholism
  • Seniors showing symptoms that mimic depression, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's diseases
  • Seniors holding multiple prescriptions for the same medication such as Percocet, Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Demerol
  • Seniors having a significant stash of “backup" pills
  • Seniors voicing concern about their own use of prescription medication

Preventative Measures

In addition to looking for these symptoms, friends and family can also take preventative measures to ensure that their loved ones do not become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

  • Monitor drug use. Take not of where they get their prescriptions and any duplicate prescriptions they may be filling.
  • Encourage non-medicinal pain relief options such as exercise, meditation, counseling, rather than obtaining another prescription for painkillers or sleep-aids.
  • Discourage alcohol use, especially if the senior takes medication for existing or chronic conditions.