The Rise of Behavioral Addictions in Older Adults

The numbers are staggering. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence 2.5 million older adults in the United States struggle with addiction issues — and the numbers are going up.

In the U.S. alone it’s estimated that the number of people age 50 and older needing treatment for addiction issues will increase to 4.4 million in 2020, a 300% increase from 2000/2001. A large percentage of these individuals — as you may have guessed — are addicted to substances such as alcohol and prescription drugs. However, behavioral addictions such as gambling, compulsive shopping, food addiction and sex addiction are just as damaging.

Can We Talk About Senior Sex Addiction?

Risky Behavior Addiction

Behavioral addiction is characterized by a compulsive desire to engage in an activity or behavior despite its negative impact on your mental and physical health. Though the physical signs of alcohol or drug addiction are absent in behavioral addiction, researchers have found that there are a number of striking similarities between the two seemingly different disorders.

What’s of increasing concern is the fact that behavioral addiction often goes unrecognized or misdiagnosed in older adults. Symptoms of addiction can mimic conditions commonly associated with seniors, such as confusion, isolation, grief, dementia, depression and weight loss or gain, leaving older adults and their families without the support and treatment they so desperately need. One behavioral addiction that’s rarely talked about among older adults is sex addiction.

Tom’s Sex Addiction Story

Tom, 66, avoided eye contact with me as he explained that his wife insisted he come for therapy.

“I . . . I’ve taken to looking at pornography on the computer,” he paused, biting his lower lip. “At first it was once in a while, maybe once a week. Now I do it every day. Sometimes when we’re out, I’m distracted by thoughts of going home to watch it. She’s asked me to stop, but I feel like I can’t.”

Tom, I would come to learn, had obsessive, intrusive thoughts of the women he watched online. In short, Tom had developed addicted behaviors surrounding sex. While Tom’s irresistible urge and compulsive behavior remained exclusive to the Internet, I’ve worked with people who engaged in reckless and even dangerous sexual behaviors. This varies from having sex with multiple partners and not using protection to compulsive liaisons with sex trade workers and more.

Sex addiction is on the rise. It’s more common in men, but women can also become addicted to sex, and it can happen at any age. Some of this can be explained by the accessibility, via the Internet, of pornography and mature dating sites like Ashley Madison, designed purely for those seeking sexual encounters.

Like all addiction, sex addiction is a symptom of underlying distress, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, low-self worth, anger and fear.

Sex addiction is a symptom of underlying distress, such as depression, anxiety, trauma, low-self worth, anger and fear. The addictive behaviors mask the distress, temporarily abating the deeper feelings. Instead of suffering painful emotions, the person becomes consumed with the addiction.

Addiction can be understood as an attempt to deal with emotional pain. Worse still, addictive behaviors cause a great deal of shame. While abstinence is a possibility and goal with other addictions, such as alcohol or drug addiction, complete avoidance is not an option with sex addiction. The sufferer has to maintain a relationship with what they’re addicted to. The goal then is to help individuals like Tom re-establish a healthy and balanced relationship with their sexual self.

Loss of Virility as We Age

For adults with no history of sex addiction, the behavior often has to do with fears about growing older, body image issues, and the real or perceived loss of sexual prowess.

The urge for more exposure to sex, whether that’s watching it online or engaging in it compulsively and sometimes recklessly, is the result of emotions associated with loss of virility. By focusing more on the act of sex, we attempt to avoid feelings of being less sexually desirable or competent. Naturally, these are not easy issues for someone to admit to, never mind discussing them openly with their partners.

How Sex Addition is Treated in Seniors

To treat behavioral addiction in older adults, it’s imperative to discuss the underlying emotional distress. Modifying behaviors is also part of helping someone recover from an addiction but without addressing the hurt underneath the addiction, the urge to participate in the addictive behavior will remain.

In Tom’s case, it took months for him to admit what he was really feeling: inadequate. He worried that he didn’t satisfy his wife. As he explored the complex feelings associated with aging and sexual performance, he started to openly share his worry with his wife and began to watch less pornography online. He recognized that when he felt anxious and compelled to view porn, it was his feelings of inadequacy that were driving his behavior. With therapy, he reported no longer feeling so out of control. In time, he was able to change his addictive behavior.

Editor’s note: Tom’s name was changed to protect his anonymity.

About the Writer

Jacqueline Simon Gunn

Jacqueline is a Manhattan-based clinical psychologist and author. She holds master’s degrees in both forensic psychology and existential/ phenomenological psychology, and has a doctorate in clinical psychology. Her specialties include eating disorders, trauma, interpersonal and relationship difficulties, alternative lifestyles and sports psychology.

Share this Article

Related Articles