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Addiction in Adults

It’s not uncommon for adults to use drugs or alcohol to cope with issues. This behavior can lead to addiction—a complex disorder that severely affects individuals, their families, and society.

Although the most common type of addiction is alcohol and drugs, anything from gambling to sex to shopping can cause addiction.

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Quick Overview on Addiction

As with many things, understanding addiction begins with defining it. Although the definition of addiction varies, most addiction professionals agree that it involves the compulsive use of a harmful substance or behavior despite adverse consequences.

Here are the two main categories of addiction in adults:

  1. Alcohol and drug addiction: This classification includes addictions to alcohol and drugs such as cocaine, opioids, sedatives, amphetamines, and nicotine.
  2. Behavioral addiction: This category will include gambling, sex addiction, compulsive shopping, and eating disorders (such as bulimia).

Some people can become addicted after using a substance only once, while for others, it may take years to become addicted. To qualify as an addiction, a person must have experienced:

  • Significant impairment in their ability to function at work or in social settings due to substance use or behavior;
  • Developed tolerance for the substance (when you need more and more of it to feel its effects); or
  • Withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop using the substance.

Addictions in adults are serious and often life-threatening. If you have a friend or loved one struggling with addiction, you should encourage them to seek treatment as soon as possible.

Risk Factors for Addiction in Adults

Addiction is a devastating disease that affects people from all walks of life, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

However, it is important to note that some risk factors make an individual more likely to develop an addiction than others.

We briefly explore each of these factors so you can better understand how addiction manifests in different individuals.

Mental Illness

People who have mental health issues like depression or anxiety are at a much higher risk for addiction than those who don’t. The main reason is that they may use drugs and alcohol to cope with their symptoms.

They may also be more likely to develop an addiction to other substances after using drugs and alcohol—leading to a vicious cycle of abuse and self-medication.

Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders refer to a diagnosis of mental health disorders alongside substance use disorders.

Some examples of co-occurring mental health issues include:

As a result, people who have co-occurring disorders are more likely to develop addictions since they already have other mental health conditions that make them vulnerable to substance use problems in the first place.

Hereditary Factors

Research shows that hereditary factors may cause addiction—meaning it runs in families. Genetics can also affect how vulnerable we are to developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol. If you have a family member who has struggled with drug abuse, you are likely at a higher risk of developing an addiction.

Outside Influences

Many outside influences can impact whether or not someone develops an addiction later in life.

Examples of outside influences include:

  • Peer groups
  • Role models (such as celebrities)
  • Family dynamics
  • Social media
  • Religion
  • Culture

These factors can all strongly influence how someone behaves when they reach adulthood and make decisions about their lives in general.

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Adult Drug Use Addiction Statistics

Drug use has been a problem for adults for decades, and it’s not improving. Drug abuse is the most common cause of preventable deaths in the United States.

Statistical data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019) revealed the following:

  • 65.8 million adults in the U.S reported binge drinking within the previous month
  • 35.8 million reported taking illegal drugs/ abusing prescription pain relievers
  • Nearly 20.4 million adults in the United States have a diagnosable substance use disorder.

As the population ages, it’s crucial to understand how drug abuse affects each age group. From young adults to elderly adults, we look at the statistics of adult drug use in various stages of life.

Drug Use by Age Groups

The most common age groups that suffer from drug abuse/addiction are younger adults, but it’s important to note that there is no “typical” pattern for drug use across age groups. Drug use can affect any adult at any point in their life.

Young Adults (18-25)

Young adults are at high risk for developing a substance use disorder because they often experiment with substances in college or after leaving home for the first time.

A report found that in 2020, drug use was prevalent among 18- to 25-year-olds compared to 26- to 29-year-olds, with a 39% to 34% ratio.

Adults (26+)

Adults 26 years and older may also struggle with addiction later in life, especially if they begin abusing alcohol or drugs at a younger age. However, this group tends to be more mature than teenagers when it comes to making good decisions about their health.

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, out of 15.1 million adults aged 26 or older who required substance abuse treatment in 2020, only 3 million got the needed treatment.

Elderly Adults (65+)

Illicit drug use is less common in older adults than in younger people. One main reason may be that they often have chronic health problems that prevent them from doing so or lead them to seek medical attention if they try them out.

However, there’s still a significant number of older people suffering from substance abuse disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, close to 1 million senior citizens aged 65 and older live with a substance use disorder (SUD), as reported in 2018 data.

Most elderly adults with a substance use disorder struggle with addiction to prescription drugs. Many rely on prescription medication for various health issues, including chronic pain. Unfortunately, prescription pain medications can be addictive, and older people may use more of the drug to get the same effect or use the drug outside their prescription.

Types of Drugs Abused

The effects of drug abuse are wide-ranging and impact many areas of life, including health, relationships, occupational functioning, and finances.

According to the 2019 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, alcohol was the most commonly used substance in the U.S. in the previous month, followed by cannabis and prescription opioids. Research shows that alcohol addiction (also known as alcohol use disorder) affects 18 million adults in the United States.

The following data shows the percentage of adults abusing each substance:

  • Alcohol: 35.8%
  • Cannabis: 24.9%
  • Prescription opioids: 18.5%
  • Benzodiazepines: 17.1%
  • Illicit stimulants: 14%
  • Heroin: 10.2%
  • Prescription sedatives/tranquilizers: 8.5%
  • Cocaine: 7.4%
  • Illicit fentanyl: 4.9%
  • Prescription stimulants: 1.8%

Addiction Treatment for Adults

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, it’s important to know that help is available. The path to recovery can be long, but it’s worth it.

While many options are available for treating addictions, the best option will be tailored to the individual’s needs and situation.

For an addiction treatment program to be successful, it must address three main areas: detoxification, rehabilitation, and relapse prevention.

Medical Detox

Once you decide to get sober, it’s time for medical detox. Medical detox is safely and comfortably withdrawing from alcohol or drugs under medical supervision.

Depending on the severity of the addiction, you may also receive medications that will help ease withdrawal symptoms so you can begin a more comprehensive recovery program.

Medical detox may also involve treatment for any underlying medical conditions that can make detox more dangerous.

You should be cautious about stopping using on your own because withdrawal can be dangerous and even life-threatening without medical supervision.

Rehab Options

After medical detox, you may be eligible for a rehab program. There are several types of rehab options available: inpatient or outpatient care.

Inpatient treatment usually lasts about 30 days. During this time, you’ll live at the facility, where you can receive 24/7 support from staff members who specialize in addiction medicine.

On the other hand, outpatient care is a way to get therapy and treatment without staying overnight at a facility. You can go from your therapist’s office back home or back to work on the same day.

Additional Treatment

Additional treatments depend on the drug you’re addicted to, how long you’ve been using it, and other health issues you may have. Some examples include:

  • Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): MAT uses buprenorphine or methadone to help treat opioid addiction by reducing cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It’s often used with therapy to help patients regain control of their lives after years of drug abuse.
  • Behavioral Therapy: Behavioral therapy is a branch of psychiatry that addresses underlying issues like depression or anxiety disorders that may be contributing to substance abuse problems. The goal is to help individuals learn coping skills to manage stress without turning towards alcohol or drugs again once they leave rehab facilities.

A few examples of this type of therapy include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Cognitive behavioral therapy is a problem-solving strategy that identifies and addresses negative thinking and behavior patterns.
  • Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT): By balancing two ideals—acceptance and change—DBT helps you accept yourself while acknowledging the need to change.
  • Support Groups: From 12-step groups to secular, non-12-step programs, support groups provide recovering addicts with accountability and support in a safe environment. Support groups are available during and after rehab programs and can provide essential support to help recovering addicts remain sober.

The best way to find out your ideal type of treatment is to talk with professionals with experience treating addiction. They will consider all aspects of you or your loved one’s life when suggesting what type(s) of treatment might work best.

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Get Help for Substance Use Disorder

Addiction in adults is a serious problem that can significantly impact the quality of life of those affected. However, overcoming addiction and leading a healthy, productive life is possible.

If you or someone you know are struggling with addiction, don’t wait any longer to get help. Many resources available can help put you on the path to recovery.

Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) helpline at  1-800-662-4357 or visit SAMHSA’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility Locator at FindTreatment.gov to learn more about treatment options in your area.

Frequently Asked Questions About Addiction in Adults

What are the early signs of addiction?

Addiction can manifest in many ways, but one common sign is an overwhelming desire to use a substance or engage in a behavior despite adverse consequences.

The early signs of addiction can include:

  • Using more of the substance than intended
  • Cravings for the substance or activity
  • Needing more of the substance or activity to get the same effect
  • Using under dangerous circumstances (on the job, driving)
  • Continuing to use despite negative consequences (job loss, relationship problems)

How many adults abuse drugs in the US?

A study by the National Institutes of Health found that almost 4% of Americans suffer from drug use disorder in any given year, and 10% have experienced the condition sometime during their lives.

This data shows that nearly 24 million U.S. adults have struggled with drug or alcohol abuse.

How many adults receive treatment for addiction each year?

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, out of more than 20 million diagnosed with substance use disorder, only 1 in 10 receive treatment.

How can I get help for addiction?

There are many ways to get help for addiction, and the first step is always to ask for it. The best thing you can do is seek help from a professional treatment program, and your doctor or healthcare provider can refer you to a treatment center best suited to your needs and situation.

If you don’t know where to start, here are some other resources that might be helpful.

Chris Carberg is the Founder of Addiction HelpReviewed by:Chris Carberg

AddictionHelp.com Founder & Mental Health Advocate

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Chris Carberg is a visionary digital entrepreneur, the founder of AddictionHelp.com, and a long-time recovering addict from prescription opioids, sedatives, and alcohol.  Over the past 15 years, Chris has worked as a tireless advocate for addicts and their loved ones while becoming a sought-after digital entrepreneur. Chris is a storyteller and aims to share his story with others in the hopes of helping them achieve their own recovery.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction HelpWritten by:

Editorial Director

Jessica Miller is the Editorial Director of Addiction Help. Jessica graduated from the University of South Florida (USF) with an English degree and combines her writing expertise and passion for helping others to deliver reliable information to those impacted by addiction. Informed by her personal journey to recovery and support of loved ones in sobriety, Jessica's empathetic and authentic approach resonates deeply with the Addiction Help community.

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