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The Facts About Addiction and Alzheimer’s

Jessica Gwinn
By Jessica GwinnSeptember 5, 2014

It’s challenging enough to suffer the stigma of addiction in addition to caring for an aging addict. Add an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis to the equation and it’s almost more than a family can bear.

How can we help our loved ones and ourselves, through this very difficult time? How can we make this something that we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about? Learn more about addiction and Alzheimer’s.

As Baby Boomers Age, Mental Health Issues Are Increasing

To get a sense of the magnitude of this looming mental health crisis, consider that in 2010, the best estimates were that six to eight million older Americans — about 14-20% of the overall elderly population — had one or more substance abuse or mental disorders. The number of adults aged 65 and older is projected to increase to 73 million from 40 million by 2030, and the numbers of those needing treatment stands to overwhelm the country’s mental health care system.

Detecting drug or alcohol problems in the elderly can be difficult because family members and clinicians alike consider it an “off limits” topic. Perhaps it’s another form of ageism, but drug abuse is not the first thing that pops into the mind of physicians when they encounter an older patient. Though, let’s not forget who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when experimentation was at an all-time high: Baby Boomers.

Interestingly enough, a 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that among adults aged 50-59, the rate of illicit drug use increased to 6.3% in 2011 from 2.7% in 2002. Perhaps not so surprising, aside from alcohol, the most commonly abused drugs were opiates, cocaine and marijuana.

Most concerning, doctors may fail to realize that even modest amounts of alcohol or drugs can be problematic. Older patients have a significantly reduced ability to metabolize these substances, as well as increased brain sensitivity to them. Additionally, the cognitive impairments common with advancing age make it very difficult for the user to even be aware of — or forthcoming about —their disease and usage with their caregiver or their doctor.

Drug User’s Brains Resemble Early Alzheimer’s

Arguably, the classic “this is your brain on drugs” ’80s ad campaign was more camp than cure. Still, none of us can forget that sinister egg frying away in it’s black skillet, a simple but visually dramatic warning as well as a call to action. “Just say no. Don’t do drugs.” Sure, of course not. However, what many young people don’t consider is that their brain, after years of continued abuse, won’t just bounce back. Aging is inevitable, but what happens when long term drug abuse is combined with old age? What will that look like in the years to come?

We are already aware of the link between alcohol abuse and dementia, but lifetime drug use is another cause for concern among the aging population. Young drug abusers are up to three times more likely to suffer brain damage than those who don’t use drugs, according to research published online by Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology.

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh studied the brains of 34 deceased intravenous drug abusers of heroin and methadone and compared them to the brains of 16 young people who were not drug users. Their examination revealed brain damage in the drug abusers — damage that is usually only found in much older people. Damaged nerve cells were found in areas of the brain involved with learning, memory and emotional wellbeing, and were similar to damage found in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

Caring For An Addict Who Also Has Alzheimer’s

Loving someone who is an addict and also has Alzheimer’s is a big job. They need our care and attention in unique ways, and there are some critical things we can do to help our loved ones and ourselves in the process.

Here is a great list of tips to help you through and, below, a few essential considerations for you and your loved one right now:

  1. The Basics: Eat right, get plenty of rest, and exercise every day. If you need to take a nap, take a nap! Don’t beat yourself up for it. Get outside for a nice walk or go to a gentle yoga class and stretch. Whatever you do, move your body for 30 minutes a day. Choose foods that nourish the body and mind, ones that are inspiring and good for you.
  2. Get Support: Attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings if you suffer from alcoholism. Attend Alanon meetings if you’re the caregiver of an addict. Talk to people. You cannot deal with this problem in isolation. Once you meet others who share these problems, you’ll not only find peace of mind but you’ll realize they need you as much as you need them.
  3. Get Your Feelings Out: Good old-fashioned writing is still one of the most therapeutic exercises we can do to sort through our emotions, process our pain, and ‘get it out.’ Write about things you see and do, just get your thoughts and feelings on paper. You’ll feel better.

Above all, know that you are not alone. If you’re concerned about your loved one’s alcohol or drug abuse, talk about it. Get some advice from your doctor, from family and friends.

Addiction is a painful problem and Alzheimer’s is, too. If you’ve dealt with either, share what you do to stay strong and positive in the comments below.

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Jessica Gwinn

Jessica Gwinn

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