Break the Silence around Substance Use Disorders

​By: Dr. Tedra Anderson Brown, Regional Medical Director, Cardinal Innovations Healthcare


Did you know that 5.7 million people over age 50 are estimated to need treatment for substance use disorders by the year 2020?

A substance use disorder is a brain disease. It causes someone to keep using alcohol or certain drugs even though they can create big problems such as missing work repeatedly, arguments with friends or health issues. Many people think of a substance use disorder as something only young people deal with. But the truth is, they affect older adults and their families a lot more often than we might expect.

Unfortunately, adults age 50 and older do have challenges with misuse of prescription pills and alcohol that begin later in life due to factors like chronic health problems, isolation, stress and depression. While many people think substance use is a normal part of aging that does not require treatment or support, use can quickly turn from a coping mechanism to abuse.


Could one of your friends or family members be struggling silently with a substance use disorder? How about you? Look for these potential signs: 

  • Unusual changes in behavior (like when a normally easygoing person suddenly acts irritable) 
  • Wanting to be alone 
  • Little interest in typical activities 
  • Losing touch with loved ones 
  • Unexplained pains, falls or bruises 
  • Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits 
  • Confusion that begins quickly 
  • Slurred speech during the day 
  • Neglecting important personal and financial responsibilities 
  • Repeated denial of substance use.

Of course, sometimes it can be hard to tell whether these signs are caused by a substance use disorder or another medical condition. That’s why it’s a good idea to make sure anyone you’re concerned about is properly evaluated by doctors and health experts. Talk with the person, their doctors and other caregivers. A good assessment is the key to getting the right kind of help.


Fortunately, you or your loved ones can turn to lots of places in Chatham County. For example: 

  • Go to the Daymark Recovery Services community clinic in Siler City. You can just walk in for your first visit, no appointment needed.
  • Call Cardinal Innovations Healthcare at any time, toll-free at 1-800-939-5911, for confidential screenings, referrals and emergency counseling. Cardinal Innovations is the country’s largest specialty health plan. Through strong community partnerships, it cares for many people on Medicare or Medicaid who have complex needs.
  • Contact Cardinal Innovations Healthcare community engagement specialists here. These experts can connect you with trusted local resources.
  • Reach out to your faith community. Many faith-based organizations offer 12-step and other recovery programs.

Substance use disorders aren’t a topic people like to talk about. Among older adults it’s an especially silent epidemic. But if we break that silence and encourage treatment, we can help our friends and loved ones reclaim their lives.


Take Charge of Your Health:

Steps to Prevent Substance Use Disorders

Here are a few things you can do to lower the risk of developing a substance use disorder:

Know your limits. As we age, our bodies process alcohol and other substances slower. The man who could easily “handle” 5 drinks in his 30s might now only be able to have 2 or 3 drinks with the same effect.

Take medications only the way they are prescribed for you. That means taking the right amounts at the right times.

Ask your doctors to “start low and go slow.” That means asking them to prescribe the lowest dose of medicine, and only increase the amount after evaluation.

Don’t take medicines prescribed for anyone else. Your best friend’s doctor might have given her a pill that cleared up her cold in a flash. That doesn’t mean it will get rid of your cold the same way. In fact, it might be harmful if it mixes with other substances you take — even things like herbal supplements.

Give your doctors permission to talk with each other. That way they can better coordinate the medicines you take.

Show it all. Bring all prescription medications, over-the-counter medicines and herbal supplements to your doctor’s visits in their original bottles or containers. (If you don’t have those, bring a list of each medicine you take, and how much.) Seeing everything you take can help doctors avoid duplication, maximize drug effectiveness, and strategize with you about alternative treatments.

Educate yourself and take advantage of community resources. Check out resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, for example. There is information to help people understand their options and avoid opioid misuse. Cardinal Innovations also offers a free online library full of behavioral health and wellness topics. In addition, groups like the Chatham County Council on Aging often hold educational events to celebrate awareness.

Ask questions! Talk to your doctors about your medications. Ask about their potential side effects. Is it possible to lower the dose or use a shorter-acting version? What about non-drug options like physical therapy, acupuncture, yoga or light exercise? It’s your body — don’t be afraid to ask questions and take charge!


Originally posted in The Chatham Senior Times Fall 2017 newsletter