Using substances as an older adult
On this page
- About substance use
- Considerations for older adults
- Talking to your health care providers about substances
- More information
About substance use
There are many types of substances, available both legally or illegally. These include:
- prescription medications
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:
- falls and injuries
- substance use disorders
For more information, visit the page About 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:
- your body breaks down substances slower, so they stay in your body for longer
- you may have more body fat and less muscle mass
- you may have less water content in your body than when you were younger
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:
- natural health products, such as St. John's Wort
- controlled and illegal drugs
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:
- are a first-time or inexperienced user
- haven't used the substance in a long time
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:
- nurse practitioners
When speaking to your health care providers, you should:
- bring a list of your medications (including vitamins) and tell them if you use any other substances like alcohol or cannabis
- let them know if you sometimes use different substances or a different amount of your medications to deal with any physical or emotional problems
- consider bringing a family member or friend to visits with your health care providers, as they may be able to help you ask questions and remember the answers
This resource was developed in collaboration with the Canadian Coalition for Seniors' Mental Health (CCSMH). A printable poster is also available to help support older adults in making informed choices about their substance use:
Aging and substance use: Understand your risks (poster)
Visit the websites below for more information on substance use and mental health.
- Health effects of cannabis on adults over 55
- Health risks of alcohol
- About substance use
- Get help with substance use
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