Using substances as an older adult

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About substance use

There are many types of substances, available both legally or illegally. These include:

In some cases, the use of substances can be beneficial. For example, medications can improve the lives of people living with conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, or mental illness. Other substances like cannabis and alcohol are often used socially. 

However, sometimes substance use can lead to serious harms, such as:

For more information, visit the page About problematic substance use.

Considerations for older adults

People’s risks of substance-related harms can change as they get older. These are some things that older adults should consider when deciding to use substances.

Your body changes as you age

As you get older, your body goes through many changes that influence how substances can affect you and how strong their effects are. For example:

Because of these changes, older adults usually have a lower tolerance for substances. This means you may require less of a substance to get the same effect as younger adults. It is important for older adults to keep in mind that becoming more sensitive to the effects of substances can lead to problems such as dizziness, falls, and injuries.

The link between substance use and significant life events

As you get older, you may experience certain life transitions or losses such as illness, retirement, and the loss of a loved one. This can lead to feelings of sadness, anxiousness, or loneliness. Sometimes people try to deal with these feelings by using medications or other substances, like alcohol and cannabis, to help them cope. However, using substances to help cope with these feelings can lead to harms.

Mixing substances, including medications, can lead to harmful effects

In many cases, people are prescribed more medications as they age. Certain substances or medications can interact with each other negatively. When you use more than one substance at the same time, you increase the risk of unintended or harmful effects.

In addition to medications, other substances that may cause harm when mixed include:

It can be difficult to find information about potential interactions between substances, including medication. Talk to your health care provider if you have questions.

Some substances have gotten stronger over time

Many substances have gotten much stronger in recent years, so they may now be more potent than what you may have used in the past. For example, dried cannabis now contains about 4 times more THC than it did in the 1980s. This can lead to harms from consuming too much of a substance, especially if you:

Talking to your health care providers about substances

It’s important that your health care providers know about all of the substances that you’re taking. This information will help them support you to stay well. Your health care providers may include:

When speaking to your health care providers, you should:

More information

This resource was developed in collaboration with the Canadian Coalition for Seniors’ Mental Health (CCSMH).

Visit the websites below for more information on substance use and mental health.

Other organizations

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