Psychoactive drug abuse in older adults

Am J Geriatr Pharmacother. 2006 Dec;4(4):380-94. doi: 10.1016/j.amjopharm.2006.10.002.


Background: Misuse and abuse of legal and illegal drugs constitute a growing problem among older adults.

Objective: This article reviews the prevalence, risks and protective factors, and screening and diagnosis of drug abuse in older adults. Treatment concerns and the consequences of drug problems are examined briefly.

Methods: MEDLINE and PsychInfo were searched using the terms substance-related disorders, drug-use disorders, abuse, dependency, opioid-related disorders, stimulant-related disorders, cocaine-related disorders, marijuana-related disorders, and withdrawal syndrome. The review included articles published in English between January 1, 1990, and May 31, 2006.

Results: Despite a wealth of information on the epidemiology and treatment of alcohol abuse in older adults, few comparable data are available on drug abuse in this population. The evidence suggests that although illegal drug use is relatively rare among older adults compared with younger adults and adolescents, there is a growing problem of the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs with abuse potential. It is estimated that up to 11% of older women misuse prescription drugs and that nonmedical use of prescription drugs among all adults aged > or =50 years will increase to 2.7 million by the year 2020. Factors associated with drug abuse in older adults include female sex, social isolation, history of a substance-use or mental health disorder, and medical exposure to prescription drugs with abuse potential. No validated screening or assessment instruments are available for identifying or diagnosing drug abuse in the older population. Special approaches may be necessary when treating substance-use disorders in older adults with multiple comorbidities and/or functional impairment, and the least intensive approaches should be considered first.

Conclusions: Psychoactive medications with abuse potential are used by at least 1 in 4 older adults, and such use is likely to grow as the population ages. The treatment of disorders of prescription drug use in older adults may involve family and caretakers, and should take into account the unique physical, emotional, and cognitive factors of aging. Further research is needed on the epidemiologic, health services, and treatment aspects of drug abuse in older adults, as well as the development of appropriate screening and diagnostic tools.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Illicit Drugs / adverse effects*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / complications
  • Middle Aged
  • Polypharmacy
  • Prevalence
  • Psychotropic Drugs / adverse effects*
  • Risk Factors
  • Sex Factors
  • Social Isolation
  • Substance Abuse Detection / methods
  • Substance-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / etiology*
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology
  • Substance-Related Disorders / therapy


  • Illicit Drugs
  • Psychotropic Drugs