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Aging & Substance Abuse

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As we age...

The need to take more and different kinds of medications tends to increase. Also, growing older means that our bodies respond differently to alcohol and to medication than when we were younger. You should be aware that:
  • Some of your medicines wonít mix well with other medications, including overthe- counter medications and herbal remedies.

  • Many medications do not mix well with alcohol.

  • Changes in body weight can influence the amount of medicine you need to take and how long it stays in your body. Body circulation may slow down, which can affect how quickly drugs get to the liver and kidneys. In addition, the liver and kidneys may work slower, which can affect how a drug breaks down and is eliminated from the body. Due to these changes, medicine may remain in your body longer and create a greater chance of interaction.

To guard against potential problems with medicines, become knowledgeable about your medication and how it makes you feel.

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Take steps on your own

  • Read the labels of your medications carefully, and follow the directions.

  • Look for pictures or statements on your prescriptions and pill bottles that tell you not to drink alcohol while taking the particular medication. If you are taking medications for sleeping, pain, anxiety, or depression, it is unsafe to drink alcohol.

  • One alcoholic drink a day is the recommended limit for anyone over the age of 65 who has not been diagnosed with a drinking problem. Thatís 12 ounces of beer, 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, or 5 ounces of wine.

  • Talk to your health care professional about all medicines you take, including prescription; over-the-counter (OTC) medications; and dietary supplements, vitamins, and herbals.

  • Tell your doctor about any food or medicine allergies you have.

  • Keep track of side effects, and let your doctor know immediately about any unexpected symptoms or changes in the way you feel.

  • Go through your medicine cabinet at least once a year to get rid of old or expired medicines.

  • Have all of your medicine reviewed by your doctor at least once a year.

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Medicine and alcohol misuse can happen unintentionally

Here are some signals that may indicate an alcohol or medication-related problem:

  • Memory trouble after having a drink or taking medicine
  • Loss of coordination (walking unsteadily, frequent falls)
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Being unsure of yourself
  • Irritability, sadness, depression
  • Unexplained chronic pain
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Wanting to stay alone a lot of the time
  • Failing to bathe or keep clean
  • Having trouble finishing sentences
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Difficulty staying in touch with family or friends
  • Lack of interest in usual activities

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Talk to someone you trust

  • Talk with your doctor or other health care professional. They can check for any problems you may be having and discuss treatment options with you.

  • Ask for advice from a staff member at a senior center or other program in which you participate.

  • Share your concerns with a friend, family member, or spiritual advisor.

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Share the right information with your health care professional

  • Make a list for your doctor of all your medications.

  • Remind your doctor or pharmacist about any previous conditions that might affect your ability to take certain medicines, such as allergies, a stroke, hypertension, serious heart disease, liver problems, or lung disease.

  • Donít be afraid to ask questions if you want more information.

  • Whenever possible, have your doctor or a member of the medical staff give you written advice or instructions.

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Many people view drug abuse and addiction as strictly a social problem. Parents, teens, older adults, and other members of the community tend to characterize people who take drugs as morally weak or as having criminal tendencies. They believe that drug abusers and addicts should be able to stop taking drugs if they are willing to change their behavior.

These myths have not only stereotyped those with drug-related problems, but also their families, their communities, and the health care professionals who work with them. Drug abuse and addiction comprise a public health problem that affects many people and has wide-ranging social consequences. It is NIDA's goal to help the public replace its myths and long-held mistaken beliefs about drug abuse and addiction with scientific evidence that addiction is a chronic, relapsing, and treatable disease.

Addiction does begin with drug abuse when an individual makes a conscious choice to use drugs, but addiction is not just "a lot of drug use." Recent scientific research provides overwhelming evidence that not only do drugs interfere with normal brain functioning creating powerful feelings of pleasure, but they also have long-term effects on brain metabolism and activity. At some point, changes occur in the brain that can turn drug abuse into addiction, a chronic, relapsing illness. Those addicted to drugs suffer from a compulsive drug craving and usage and cannot quit by themselves. Treatment is necessary to end this compulsive behavior.

A variety of approaches are used in treatment programs to help patients deal with these cravings and possibly avoid drug relapse. NIDA research shows that addiction is clearly treatable. Through treatment that is tailored to individual needs, patients can learn to control their condition and live relatively normal lives.

Treatment can have a profound effect not only on drug abusers, but on society as a whole by significantly improving social and psychological functioning, decreasing related criminality and violence, and reducing the spread of AIDS. It can also dramatically reduce the costs to society of drug abuse.

Understanding drug abuse also helps in understanding how to prevent use in the first place. Results from NIDA-funded prevention research have shown that comprehensive prevention programs that involve the family, schools, communities, and the media are effective in reducing drug abuse. It is necessary to keep sending the message that it is better to not start at all than to enter rehabilitation if addiction occurs.

A tremendous opportunity exists to effectively change the ways in which the public understands drug abuse and addiction because of the wealth of scientific data NIDA has amassed. Overcoming misconceptions and replacing ideology with scientific knowledge is the best hope for bridging the "great disconnect" - the gap between the public perception of drug abuse and addiction and the scientific facts.

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For More Information

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services

Food and Drug Administration

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Aging & Substance Abuse