Evidence-Based Reviews

Substance abuse among older adults: A growing problem

Author and Disclosure Information

Maintaining vigilance is the key to effective recognition and treatment.



Baby Boomers—a term used to refer to individuals born in the United States between 1946 and 1964—are now approaching old age. Surprisingly, these older adults are using illicit substances in a pattern not seen in prior generations of older adults, including developing substance use disorders (SUDs) at increasingly higher rates; in previous generations, the prevalence of such disorders typically lowered with advancing age.

This article discusses how to recognize and treat SUDs in older adults. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance among older adults,1 and there is a largebody of literature describing the identification and treatment of alcohol-related disorders in these patients. Therefore, this article will instead focus on older adults’ use of illicit substances, including marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.


Prior clinical data regarding substance abuse in older adults focused on alcohol, prescription drugs, nicotine, and caffeine.2 In the past, compared with younger adults, older adults had lower rates of alcohol and other illicit drug use.3,4 Baby Boomers appear to be defying this trend.

A 2013 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey found that the percentage of adults ages 50 to 64 who used illicit substances increased from 2.7% in 2002 to 6.0% in 2013.5 Specifically, during that time, past-month illicit substance use increased from 3.4% to 7.9% among those ages 50 to 54, from 1.9% to 5.7% among those ages 55 to 59, and from 2.5% to 3.9% among those ages 60 to 64.5

More recently, a 2014 study of geriatric patients found that of the 1,302 patients age ≥65 admitted to a Level 1 trauma center, 48.3% had a positive urine drug screen.6 Someresearchers have estimated that 5.7 million older adults will require treatment for a substance use disorder in 2020, which is roughly double the 2.8 million who had an SUD in 2002 to 2006.7

Risk factors and patterns of substance abuse

Individual, social, and familial factors can contribute to substance use and abuse in late life. The Table1 outlines some of the potential risk factors for older adults associated with the use of illicit substances. Substance abuse among older adults can be divided into 2 broad categories: early onset (starting before age 50) and late onset (starting after age 50).8 While data are limited, in general, early-onset use is a more common pattern; late-onset use represents an estimated <10% of substance use among older adults. The factors that lead some adults to continue substance use in late life, or to begin substance use later in life, have not been thoroughly evaluated.

Risk factors for substance abuse in older adults image

Although older adults may abuse a wide variety of illicit substances, here we describe their use of marijuana, cocaine, and heroin.


Recommended Reading

4 Ways to help your patients with schizophrenia quit smoking
MDedge Psychiatry
Compulsive sexual behavior: A nonjudgmental approach
MDedge Psychiatry
Health care gets little attention in State of the Union address
MDedge Psychiatry
Psychiatric issues common among hepatitis C inpatients
MDedge Psychiatry
HCV screening, care inadequate for young adults who use opioids nonmedically
MDedge Psychiatry
Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders incidence exceeds previous estimates
MDedge Psychiatry
Fetal alcohol syndrome: Context matters
MDedge Psychiatry
Embrace the complexity of marijuana use in adolescents
MDedge Psychiatry
How to advise adolescents ISO drugs on the ‘dark web’
MDedge Psychiatry
For women with alcohol SUD, try gender-specific treatment
MDedge Psychiatry