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Can Life Transitions Lead to Addiction or Mental Health Issues?

November 12, 2021

By Anna McKenzie

Young adulthood may seem like the peak time for addiction and mental health struggles, but statistics show that older adults are becoming increasingly more susceptible to these conditions. In fact, according to The New England Journal of Medicine, up to 8 million older adults suffer from an addiction or mental health issue, a number that is expected to increase by 2 to 6 million by 2030.

For many in the 55+ age group, life transitions can bring tremendous stress. Economic instability, financial uncertainty, career loss, grief, illness, disability, and even aging itself can all be factors that influence the development of addiction or mental health issues. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that many older adults take prescription medications, abuse or misuse is a serious risk. However, if you’re an older adult coping with change, there are healthy ways to deal with stressors and treatment options that can help you heal and build your resilience.

How Addiction and Mental Health Issues Arise in Older Adults

Aging has a number of effects on the mind and body. Some of them are biochemical and physiological, affecting emotional regulation, physical capability, and cognitive skills. Others are psychological: Sensing the differences in your physical appearance, memory, or ability to perform tasks can be a considerable adjustment. Some older adults may struggle with the idea of diminished capacity, even though our bodies and minds are flexible and capable of enduring great change.

An inability to cope can be far more detrimental than the effects of aging.

An inability to cope can be far more detrimental than the effects of aging. People who turn to drugs or alcohol to escape physical or emotional pain may do themselves greater harm, impairing their coordination, reaction time, normal body function, and ability to heal. Older adults are at an increased risk of accidents and falls when under the influence. Harm to your physical body, especially when it takes longer to heal, can warp your self-image and evoke depression. Other mental health conditions can more easily develop when drugs and alcohol are hampering your ability to function and think clearly. 

Areas of High-Risk to Watch For

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), here are a few key areas of addiction and mental health risk for older adults:

  • Alcohol Abuse

Unfortunately, 65% of adults aged 65 and older report high-risk drinking, and one in ten engage in binge drinking. Alcohol consumption for older adults has spiked, exceeding that of the younger population, revealing that alcohol abuse is a major concern when it comes to dealing with life transitions and stressors.

  • Opioid Abuse

The opioid crisis in America has affected more than just young people. Between 2013 and 2015, the percentage of older adults seeking treatment for opioid use disorder increased by 54%. Because older adults may be prescribed opioids more frequently for chronic pain or postoperative recovery, they are at a high risk for misusing these drugs. The results can be serious: In a 2019 study, one quarter of older adults misusing opioids or benzodiazepines reported experiencing suicidal ideation.

In a 2019 study, one quarter of older adults misusing opioids or benzodiazepines reported experiencing suicidal ideation.

  • Prescription Drugs

Because so many older adults take prescription drugs, a drug problem can develop slowly and emerge into addiction. Taking multiple drugs per day can be confusing based on amounts and contraindications; this inflates the risk of cognitive impairment, a major drug interaction, misuse, and even an accidental overdose.

Access to prescription drugs and alcohol, as well as the effects of stress and aging, can compound addiction and mental health risks for older adults. This is why it’s critical to not only be aware of your own susceptibility to these conditions, but learn how to spot the signs among your friends and family members. 

Coping with Change: Healthy Ways to Deal with Transitions

Awareness is the first step in learning how to cope with change in healthy ways instead of exacerbating your issues with drugs or alcohol. There are several steps you can take to respond positively to life transitions and to heal from addiction and mental health issues if you have struggled with them. 

Harvard Health recommends the following ways older adults can cope with change and deal with life transitions:

  • Join a Support Group

If you’re dealing with grief or loss, emotional trauma, or a family member’s addiction, you would be well served to join a support group. (The same, of course, goes if you are in recovery from addiction or a mental health issue.) Being surrounded by others who understand what you’re going through can be deeply comforting and encourage you to persevere. You may learn from their coping skills or find guidance to develop new healthy habits. 

  • Engage in an Exercise or Mind-Body Program

Moving your body has a number of physical and mental health benefits. Develop a doable exercise habit (walking in nature can be very restorative), or join a program that focuses on intentional movement. 

  • Consider Pet Ownership

Having a pet as a companion can relieve stress, help you be more active, and make you feel less alone. However, pets require maintenance and can add stress at different points, so make your choice carefully, and consider your options for having others care for your pet when you are overwhelmed or unavailable. 

Life transitions are never easy, but they can be more manageable when you stay aware and choose healthy ways to manage your stress. If you find yourself struggling or just have questions, we at The Meadows are here to help.