Addiction Among Older Americans

By Marilyn Murray Willison

January 24, 2020 5 min read

Most Americans over the age of 50 are not strangers to the following names: Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin, Lunesta, OxyContin, Sonata, Tylenol, Valium, Xanax. Whether it's to address anxiety issues, insomnia or pain relief, at one time or another, many of us have relied on over-the-counter or prescription drugs to help us make it through the day (or the night).

According to the Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services, there are two standard forms of alcohol addiction among older Americans. The "hardy survivor" is the person who has reached 65 and has been abusing alcohol for years, while the "late onset" individual has abused alcohol (usually accidentally) later in life. The triggers for alcohol abuse among the elderly include the following:

—Death of a close friend, family member, pet or spouse.

—Family conflict.

—Loss of income or financial strain.

—Mental (depression, memory loss, etc.) or physical (major surgery, etc.) health decline.

—Relocation or placement in a nursing home.


—Trouble sleeping.

The problem is that what can begin as a temporary crutch to cope with a life challenge slowly turns into a dangerous dependency — especially among seniors. Older Americans appear to have an increased risk when it comes to benzodiazepines — nicknamed "benzos" — because they can interact with alcohol as well as less harmful medications. With opioid drugs, the main danger, as revealed in an interesting article in the February 2018 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, is that "they stop you from breathing." According to a study by Keith Humphreys and his researchers at Stanford University, the overuse and misuse of opioids has become a serious health issue.

It's no secret, of course, that opioids can be hazardous. But when it comes to their use by America's aging population, we enter a whole new field of concern. Part of the problem is that benzodiazepine drugs are only meant to be taken for a short period of time, and yet many people (including physicians) consider it "harmless" to take drugs like Xanax or Ativan for years. In 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that there were only 63 benzodiazepine-related deaths among people ages 65 and older. But by 2015 — roughly two decades later — that number had jumped to 431. Among the 63 deaths, only 29 percent also involved the use of an opioid, but of the 431 deaths, over two-thirds included opioid use.

If you are unsure about which benzos you may or may not be taking, here is a list of the most commonly prescribed drugs that fall within that category:

—Alprazolam (Xanax, Xanax XR).

—Clobazam (Onfi).

—Clonazepam (Klonopin).

—Clorazepate (Tranxene).

—Chlordiazepoxide (Librium).

—Diazepam (Valium, Diastat Acudial, Diastat).

—Estazolam (Prosom is a discontinued brand in the U.S.).

—Lorazepam (Ativan).

And if you are worried about the opioid drugs that need to be avoided, visit the RehabCenter website ( to see whether certain ones might interact with other medications you are using.

It's important to remember that trying to alter your drug use on your own is never a good idea. According to Dr. Donovan Maust, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Ann Arbor Health Care System in Michigan, it is essential to "taper down very gradually." Confer with your physician if you have any concerns about your use of benzos and/or opioids.

Marilyn Murray Willison has had a varied career as a six-time nonfiction author, columnist, motivational speaker and journalist in both the U.K. and the U.S. She is the author of The Self-Empowered Woman blog and the award-winning memoir "One Woman, Four Decades, Eight Wishes." She can be reached at To find out more about Marilyn and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

Photo credit: stevepb at Pixabay

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