Commonly Abused Substances Among Seniors in PA

Substance abuse among seniors in Pennsylvania is a growing concern that affects their health and well-being. As individuals age, they may face various challenges such as chronic pain, loneliness, and the loss of loved ones, which can lead to increased use of alcohol, prescription medications, and illicit drugs. Understanding the commonly abused substances in this demographic is essential for raising awareness and providing the necessary support and resources. In this post, we will explore the commonly abused substances among seniors in PA, the reasons behind this trend, and the potential health risks involved.

Commonly Abused Substances Among Seniors in PA

Substance abuse among seniors is a growing concern in Pennsylvania. As people age, they face unique challenges that can lead to substance misuse, such as chronic pain, social isolation, and changes in living conditions. This issue is particularly relevant in Pennsylvania due to the state’s demographic trends and healthcare challenges.

An elderly couple holding yellow flowers
Substance abuse is a widespread issue among seniors in PA.

Prescription Medications

Prescription medication abuse is a serious issue among seniors, particularly with opioids and benzodiazepines. Opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, are often prescribed for pain management. Benzodiazepines, including Valium and Xanax, are used to treat anxiety, panic attacks, and insomnia. The reasons behind the abuse of these medications are multifaceted.

A primary factor is chronic pain. Seniors frequently experience various types of chronic pain due to age-related conditions like arthritis, cancer, or surgeries. While opioids are effective for pain relief, prolonged use can lead to physical dependence and addiction. The body’s ability to metabolize drugs diminishes with age, increasing the risk of misuse and overdose even at prescribed doses.

Benzodiazepines are prescribed to manage anxiety and insomnia, conditions that can be worsened by the loss of loved ones, social isolation, or other significant life changes common among older adults. These drugs enhance the effect of a neurotransmitter that calms the brain, but long-term use can lead to dependence. Symptoms of misuse include confusion, memory problems, and falls, which are often mistaken for normal aging. Withdrawal can be dangerous, so medically supervised benzo rehab is necessary to quit using these substances.

Many seniors unintentionally misuse these drugs by taking higher doses than prescribed or combining them with other medications or alcohol, increasing the risk of severe health consequences. Additionally, the accessibility of these medications, often kept in home medicine cabinets, makes them easier to misuse. Targeted prescription drug addiction treatment can help seniors safely detox from these drugs and recover from addiction.


Alcohol is one of the most commonly abused substances among seniors in PA, with a significant portion of older adults consuming alcohol regularly. Approximately 65% of seniors report high-risk drinking, which includes exceeding daily guidelines at least weekly. Moreover, about 20% of adults aged 60-64 and around 10% over 65 engage in binge drinking.

Alcohol can have a substantial impact on health, particularly in older adults. Aging lowers the body’s tolerance for alcohol, making seniors more susceptible to its effects. This increased sensitivity can lead to higher risks of falls, car accidents, and other injuries. Additionally, alcohol can exacerbate chronic health conditions common among seniors, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, liver problems, osteoporosis, memory issues, and mood disorders​.

Three women celebrating a birthday
Alcohol use is normalized among senior population.

One of the most concerning issues is the interaction between alcohol and medications. Many seniors take multiple prescription medications, and alcohol can interact negatively with these drugs. These interactions can cause severe health problems, including internal bleeding, heart issues, difficulty breathing, and increased risks of falls and injuries. For example, mixing alcohol with benzodiazepines, often prescribed for anxiety or insomnia, can enhance the sedative effects, leading to dangerous levels of drowsiness and coordination problems.

Over-the-Counter Medications

Commonly abused over the counter (OTC) medications include:

  • Dextromethorphan (DXM) is found in many cough suppressants and is often abused for its depressant and hallucinogenic effects. Misusing DXM can lead to confusion, hallucinations, and high blood pressure.
  • Loperamide, an anti-diarrheal medication, is another commonly abused OTC drug. At high doses, it can produce effects similar to opioids, such as euphoria. However, loperamide misuse can result in severe heart problems, constipation, and kidney issues.
  • Pseudoephedrine, a decongestant, is used in some cold medications. It is often misused for its stimulating effects or to produce methamphetamine. Abuse can cause heart rate irregularities, high blood pressure, and insomnia.
  • Diphenhydramine, an antihistamine found in products like Benadryl, is abused for its sedative effects. Long-term misuse can lead to cognitive impairments, memory issues, and an increased risk of dementia.
  • Acetaminophen, used for pain relief, can cause liver damage when taken in large amounts or combined with alcohol. Chronic overuse is linked to liver failure.


Marijuana use among seniors is on the rise, with studies showing a significant increase in the past decade. In 2021, about 7% of adults aged 65 and older reported using marijuana, up from just 1.4% in 2012. This increase is driven by several factors, including the legalization of cannabis in many states, more permissive attitudes toward substance use among the Baby Boomer generation, and the use of marijuana to manage symptoms that are not easily treated by conventional medications​.

Medical marijuana is increasingly being used by older adults to address various conditions such as chronic pain, insomnia, neuropathy, and anxiety. These uses are similar to those among younger patients, but seniors often have unique considerations due to age-related health issues and the higher likelihood of taking multiple medications. For instance, cannabis can interact with other drugs, potentially increasing or decreasing their effects due to the way it is metabolized by the liver​.

Two elderly women sitting on a sofa talking about the commonly abused substances among seniors in PA
Marijuana is one of the most commonly abused substances among seniors in PA.

While many older adults find medical marijuana helpful, it is important to use it cautiously. Cannabis can increase heart rate and blood pressure, which might be problematic for those with heart conditions. Moreover, the psychoactive effects of THC can lead to confusion or exacerbate cognitive issues in seniors. Frequents use can also lead to addiction, which requires professional help from a marijuana rehab center.

Illicit Drugs

Illicit drug use among seniors is a growing concern, with significant increases in recent years. Between 2015 and 2020, illicit drug use among adults aged 50 and older rose from 2.8% to 6%​. Various types of drugs are commonly misused in this age group, each carrying specific risks.

Cocaine use among older adults can lead to severe cardiovascular problems, including heart attacks and strokes. The stimulant effect can also increase blood pressure and heart rate, posing additional risks for seniors with preexisting heart conditions​​.

Heroin is another illicit drug used by some seniors, often leading to serious health issues such as respiratory depression, increased risk of infectious diseases, and severe withdrawal symptoms. Heroin use among older adults also contributes to the growing number of emergency department visits due to overdose and other related complications.

Factors Contributing to Substance Abuse

Several factors contribute to substance abuse among seniors, leading to a growing concern for this demographic. One of the causes of substance abuse in elderly population is social isolation. As people age, they often experience a decrease in social interactions due to the loss of loved ones, retirement, and reduced mobility. This isolation can lead to feelings of loneliness and depression, which may drive some seniors to use alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism.

Physical changes in the brain and body also play a role. Aging affects how the body processes drugs and alcohol, making seniors more susceptible to their effects. Slower metabolism means substances stay in the system longer, increasing the risk of dependence and adverse reactions. Additionally, changes in neurotransmitter levels can increase vulnerability to depression and anxiety, further driving substance use​.

Chronic pain and health issues are significant contributors. Many seniors suffer from conditions like arthritis or neuropathy, for which they are often prescribed pain medications, including opioids. These medications can be highly addictive, leading to misuse and dependence. The prevalence of co-occurring psychiatric disorders, such as depression or anxiety, also heightens the risk, as these conditions often prompt individuals to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol​.

a person putting prescription medication on the table which are commonly abused substances among seniors in PA
Seniors turn to substance use due to numerous challenges they face.

Past substance use and a history of addiction can increase the likelihood of continued or resumed substance abuse in later life. Seniors with a history of substance use disorders or those who experienced trauma are at higher risk. Additionally, societal attitudes and the normalization of substance use among certain generations can influence behavior.

Signs of Substance Abuse in Seniors

Here are common signs of substance abuse in seniors to watch out for:

  • Memory problems and confusion.
  • Changes in sleeping habits, such as insomnia or excessive sleepiness.
  • Unexplained bruises or frequent falls.
  • Irritability, sadness, or depression.
  • Unexplained chronic pain.
  • Changes in eating habits, leading to weight loss or gain.
  • Social withdrawal and isolation.
  • Neglecting personal hygiene.
  • Loss of interest in usual activities.
  • Hiding or lying about substance use.
  • Frequently running out of prescriptions earlier than expected.
  • Faking symptoms to obtain prescriptions.

Prevention and Treatment

Identifying and addressing substance misuse early can significantly improve a senior’s quality of life and overall health. Early intervention helps prevent the progression of addiction, which can lead to severe health complications and reduced life expectancy.

Early detection allows for timely medical treatment and support, reducing the risk of serious health issues such as liver disease, heart problems, and mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Seniors are more susceptible to these complications due to their age and the potential for existing health conditions​.

Intervening early also helps maintain cognitive function and independence. Substance abuse can accelerate cognitive decline, leading to memory loss and confusion, which can compromise a senior’s ability to live independently. By addressing the issue promptly, seniors can maintain better mental health and continue their daily activities with minimal disruption​​.

Additionally, early intervention can reduce the risk of accidental injuries. Substance abuse increases the likelihood of falls and accidents due to impaired judgment and coordination. Preventing these incidents can help seniors avoid hospitalizations and maintain a higher level of physical health.

Treatment Options

Treatment options for drug and alcohol rehab in Pennsylvania are diverse and cater to the unique needs of older adults. Counseling is a fundamental part of addiction treatment, offering individual and group therapy sessions. These sessions help seniors address the underlying causes of their substance use, develop coping strategies, and rebuild their lives.

Therapist taking notes during a session
It is critical to provide therapy for commonly abused substances among seniors in PA.

Additionally, medication-assisted treatment in Pennsylvania combines medications with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat substance use disorders. For seniors, medications like methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone can help manage withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings, making recovery more manageable and sustainable.

Support Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) provide a community of individuals who share similar struggles with addiction. These groups offer emotional support, encouragement, and practical advice, which are crucial for long-term recovery. Specialized support groups for seniors can address age-specific issues and provide a more relatable environment.

Partial hospitalization program in Pennsylvania provides a structured environment with access to medical care, therapy, and support, making them ideal for individuals who need more comprehensive treatment than outpatient programs but do not require 24-hour care.

When searching for rehab facilities, it is important to look for those that accept insurance coverage to lower treatment costs. Many rehabs work with Medicare, Blue Cross Blue Shield drug rehab coverage, and private insurance providers to cover part or all of the treatment expenses. Prospective patients or their caregivers should contact the rehab centers directly to verify insurance acceptance and understand the coverage details.

Be Aware of Commonly Abused Substances Among Seniors in PA

Substance abuse among seniors in Pennsylvania is a pressing issue that requires immediate attention and action. The increasing misuse of prescription medications, alcohol, and illicit drugs poses significant health risks to older adults. Early detection and intervention are critical in preventing these problems from escalating, preserving cognitive and physical health, and enhancing overall quality of life. To address this growing concern, it’s essential to raise awareness about the commonly abused substances among seniors in PA. Families, caregivers, and healthcare providers must stay vigilant and proactive in recognizing the signs of substance abuse. If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse, seek help immediately. Substance abuse treatment in Pennsylvania is available and ready to assist those in need.

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