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Drug Abuse by Senior Adults Is an Epidemic, Says CSAT/SAHMSA Report


May-June 1998

Abuse of alcohol and legal drugs -- prescribed and over-the-counter -- is an "invisible epidemic" that affects up to 17% of adults age 60 or older, according to report by the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) (Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, "Substance Abuse Among Older Adults," May 1998; Natalie Hopkinson, "Senior Drug Abuse Called An Epidemic," Contra Costa Times, May 8, 1998).

According to the report, it is more difficult for health care providers to diagnose alcoholism in older patients because a third of those with problems had not abused alcohol in their earlier years, nor did they have health problems, trouble with the law, or difficulties with family relationships associated with problem drinking. These older drinkers typically begin abusing alcohol and medications following the death of a spouse, a divorce, retirement, or some other major life change.

The report stated that 15% of male alcoholics report that their first symptoms of alcoholism occurred between ages 60 and 69; and 14% said that their first symptoms occurred between the ages of 70 and 79. Regarding women, 24% report that their first signs of alcoholism occurred between ages 60 and 69; and 28% report that their first signs occurred between ages 70 and 79.

"Prescription drug misuse and abuse is prevalent among older adults, not only because more drugs are prescribed to them, but also because, as with alcohol, aging makes the body more vulnerable to drugs' effects," the report states. "Any use of drugs in combination with alcohol carries risk; abuse of these substances raises that risk; and multiple drug abuse raises it even further."

"As sharp growth in the elderly population is anticipated with the aging of the baby boomer generation," said SAMHSA Administrator Nelba Chavez, Ph.D., "we must begin now to educate health care providers on the need to carefully screen their older patients for signs of alcohol abuse and medication misuse and abuse."

C. Anne Harvey, Director of Program Services for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), said, "The problems inherent in untreated alcohol abuse among older Americans is a concern for AARP because of the health problems and potential loss of independence that often accompany alcohol abuse."

Substance Abuse Among Older Adults is one of a series of CSAT's Treatment Improvement Protocols (TIPs) designed to assist health care professionals to better detect and treat alcohol and medication abuse among older patients. CSAT is part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). TIPs are produced by non-federal consensus panels composed of clinical, educational, research and administrative experts.

Lead author on panel: Dr. Frederick Blow - University of Michigan, Department of Psychiatry, Alcohol Research Center, HSR&D Field Program, P.O. Box 130170, Ann Arbor, MI 48113-0170, Tel: (734) 930-5106, Fax: (734) 930-5159.

TIPs are available on the CSAT web page at or they can be ordered by contacting the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (NCADI) at 1-800-729-6686; TDD (for hearing impaired), 1-800-487-4889.