Adult Addiction - Warning Signs | Center on Addiction

Prevention in Adults

Adult Substance Use

As people age, their bodies become less capable of tolerating addictive substances and more susceptible to negative effects. For example, levels of drinking tolerated in early adulthood may lead to addiction among older adults. Older adults are also more likely to use addictive prescription medications such as pain killers and anti-anxiety drugs, which may pose additional risks or compound the risks of alcohol or other drug use.

Increased Risk in Adults

Increased risk in adults

Different life stages and circumstances present increased vulnerabilities for addiction and substance use. Doctors, other health care providers, employers, clergy and family members should be aware of the signs of addiction, medication misuse, and substance abuse throughout the human lifespan. 

Increased Risk in Early Adulthood

Adults may turn to addictive substances when coping with the stresses of child rearing, balancing a career with family and managing a household.  

Increased risk in middle age

New risks for addiction and substance abuse may emerge for individuals in middle age who face financial pressures, divorce, the empty nest, personal or family illness, the economic and emotional stresses of caring for aging parents or the death of a parent or other loved one. 

Increased risk in older adults

Older adults face additional life challenges that can lead to problems with addictive substances. Retirement, sudden or chronic illness, the loss of independent living, financial woes, the need to care for aging parents or grandchildren or the deaths of family members or friends can lead some older adults to engage in risky substance use.  


  • CASAColumbia. (2012). Addiction medicine: Closing the gap between science and practice.
  • CASAColumbia. (2011). Adolescent substance use: America's #1 public health problem.
  • The National Center on Addiction and Substsance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. (2006). Women under the influence. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

Adult substance use infographic

1 in 4 Americans who first smoked, drank or used other drugs before age 18 has a substance problem, compared to 1 in 25 Americans who first drank, smoked or used other drugs at age 21 or older.

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