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Older Adults More Likely to Abuse Alcohol, Not Drugs

4 of 5 Seeking Treatment Do So for Alcohol Problems

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Updated February 11, 2006

Updated February 11, 2006
Four out of five people of retirement age who seek substance abuse treatment do so because of alcohol problems, instead of abuse of drugs, indicating again that alcohol abuse by older adults is a growing and many times ignored problem.

Research from 29 states and other jurisdictions indicate that 80 percent current retirees in substance abuse treatment needed treatment for alcohol as their primary substance of abuse in 2003, according to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

By comparison, in the same states only 44 percent who seek treatment do so primarily for alcohol problems.

This is a far higher proportion reporting alcohol (80 percent of retirees in treatment) than for all other admissions to treatment in these states (44 percent). These findings were released today in a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) from continued analysis of the 2003 Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS). "Alcohol abuse among older adults is something few want to talk about or deal with," said SAMHSA Administrator Charles Curie. "Too often family members are ashamed of the problem and choose not to address it. Health care providers tend not to ask older patients about alcohol abuse if it wasn't a problem in their lives in earlier years. Sometimes the symptoms are mistaken for those of dementia, depression, or other problems common to older adults.

"Unfortunately, too many older persons turn to alcohol as a comfort, following the death of a spouse, a divorce, retirement, or some other major life change, unaware that they are markedly affecting the quality of their lives."

Older people in treatment reported using the following substances, compared to other groups seeking treatment:

  • Opiates, including heroin or prescription pain medications, five percent compared to 13 percent.

  • Cocaine, four percent, compared to 14 percent.

  • Marijuana, three percent, compared to 18 percent.

  • Stimulants, including methamphetamine, one percent, compared to six percent.
Of the older adults in treatment in 2003, only 17 percent reported a secondary substance of abuse other than alcohol, compared to 52 percent of others in treatment.

SAMSHA's report included data on retirees in Alaska, Alabama, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, North Dakota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming.

TEDS collects data on the approximately 1.8 million annual admissions to substance abuse treatment facilities, primarily those that receive some public funding.

Source: SAMSHA News Release

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