Alcohol, Drug, and Prescription Abuse in Late Adulthood

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  • 0:02 Late Adulthood
  • 0:53 Substance Abuse
  • 3:38 Costs & Treatment
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Late adulthood is a time of great change and adjustment. Due to changes in a person's body and life situation, substance abuse can be a real issue for some people. Watch this lesson to find out more about substance abuse in late adulthood.

Late Adulthood

Judy is in her 70s, and she's dealing with a lot of things. Now that she's retired, she's feeling a little depressed, and she's not sure what to do with herself. She also has a hard time sleeping at night. Her doctor has prescribed sleeping pills to help her out, but Judy sometimes takes them during the day, too, just to relax.

Judy is in late adulthood, or the time of life after age 65. During that time, many people experience major life changes: often, they retire from work, their children grow up and move out of the house, and they have to deal with the physical changes of aging.

Sometimes, people resort to using drugs or alcohol in order to deal with the changes in late adulthood. Let's look closer at substance abuse in late adulthood.

Substance Abuse

Judy is taking her sleeping pills more often than she should. Sometimes, she also drinks a glass or two of wine, despite knowing that she shouldn't mix sleeping pills and alcohol.

Judy is engaging in substance abuse, or the use of drugs or alcohol in a way that can cause problems physically, socially, or in another part of life. For example, Judy's mixing of sleeping pills and alcohol can cause serious physical issues, including death. Not only that, but her abuse of sleeping pills has made her friends wary of hanging out with her. As a result, her social life is suffering.

There are three substances that are often abused: alcohol, prescription drugs, and illicit drugs. Alcoholic beverages, like wine and beer, are okay to use in moderation, but abuse of them occurs when a person drinks so much that it affects their lives.

Prescription drugs are just what they sound like: drugs that are prescribed by a doctor. For example, Judy's sleeping pills were prescribed by her doctor so they are prescription drugs. Anytime a person uses prescription drugs in a way that is different from the directions given to them by their doctor, they are abusing prescription drugs. When Judy takes her sleeping pills during the day in order to relax, that is an example of abuse of prescription drugs.

Finally, illicit drugs are drugs that are illegal, like heroin or methamphetamines and (in most states) marijuana. People in late adulthood, like Judy, are less likely to abuse illicit drugs than they are to abuse prescription drugs or alcohol.

There are also gender differences in substance abuse in late adulthood: older men are more likely to abuse alcohol, while older women are more likely to abuse prescription drugs. But, like Judy, there are always people who abuse both.

One final issue with substance abuse in late adulthood involves unintentional substance abuse. You might be wondering how someone could unintentionally abuse substances. In late adulthood, this most often happens with alcohol. For example, some people drink a glass of wine or two with dinner and don't realize that it mixes badly with their prescription drugs.

Also, because of changes in the body and brain as we age, alcohol hits older adults harder. As a result, a person who has had two glasses of wine with dinner for their entire adult life may find that they are suddenly tipsy after only one. Because they might not be aware that the alcohol is affecting them differently, they could end up abusing it.

Costs and Treatment

Substance abuse can often lead to substance dependence, which is addiction to alcohol or drugs. Abuse and dependence are often harder to diagnose in later adulthood because many people are out of the workforce, and some of the signs could be chalked up to changes due to aging.

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