Today, older adults are using illicit drugs, being arrested for drug-related charges and dying from drug overdose deaths at rates higher than ever before. The baby boomer generation — Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — continues to age. As a whole, they haven’t changed their attitudes or opinions on alcohol or other drugs.
Baby boomers were between 50 and 70 years old in 2016. Adults ages 65 and older make up 13 percent of the population, but they constitute 33 percent of outpatient spending on prescription drugs. Their high exposure to prescription drugs increases their chances for accidental misuse and addiction.
Adults ages 65 and older make up 13 percent of the population, but they constitute 33 percent of outpatient spending on prescription drugs.
“There remains an underlying belief among health care professionals that older adults are not susceptible to substance use disorders,” Kent Runyon, vice president of Novus Medical, told DrugRehab.com. “We know that’s not true. Late onset substance use disorders do happen.”
Senior citizens are the age group most likely to receive long-term prescriptions or to consume multiple medications. They’re the most likely to suffer from cognitive decline and memory loss, which are major risk factors for accidental prescription drug abuse.
They also take more over-the-counter medications than other age groups, increasing the risks of unintended side effects from mixing medications with alcohol or other drugs. The cumulative effect is a massive number of older Americans requiring education about substance abuse, treatment for addiction and support systems for recovery.
The first baby boomers turned 45 in 1991. The number of older adults abusing illicit and prescription drugs has been growing ever since, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
From 1990 to 2010, rates of accidental drug overdose for the 45-to-64 age group increased elevenfold.
From 2002 to 2009, the percentage of Americans ages 50 to 59 who abused drugs grew from 2.7 percent to 6.2 percent.
In 2013, more people in the 45-to-64 age group died of accidental drug overdose than in the 25-to-44 age group for the first time in history. This trend continued in 2014.
All-cause mortality, also known as overall death rate, has steadily decreased across all age groups in industrialized nations for decades. However, the all-cause mortality of white non-Hispanic Americans ages 45 to 55 began increasing after 1999.
NIDA estimates that from 1999 to 2013, substance abuse prevention efforts could have averted 500,000 deaths.
Alcohol and drug abuse were influential factors in the trend reversal. White non-Hispanic Americans ages 45 to 55 died from drug and alcohol poisoning, suicide and chronic liver disease at high rates during the time frame.
Other age groups experienced increases in each of those categories as well, but the rise among the white non-Hispanic 45-to-55 age group was by far the most drastic. The increase was most prominent among groups with low educational levels. NIDA estimates that from 1999 to 2013, substance abuse prevention efforts could have averted 500,000 deaths.
The baby boomer generation has always been characterized by tolerant attitudes toward drug use, and much of the population has a history of illicit drug use. In fact, the high school class of 1979 — composed of Americans born in the early ′60s — broke the record for self-reported illicit drug use, according to the national Monitoring the Future survey.
“It’s a generation that, more than past generations, has experimented with illicit drugs and the concern is that they may be inclined to experiment with marijuana or to abuse other substances later in life.”
Experts predicted substance abuse rates for the population would increase as they aged, but causes were once attributed to relaxed attitudes and weak perceptions of risk.
Now, unforeseen underlying causes may be contributing to drug abuse rates. Older adults increasingly report poor health, pain, emotional problems and difficulty with daily activities such as walking, shopping and socializing. Recent studies indicate that those risk factors may have contributed to the opioid epidemic.
A Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that many baby boomers quit using drugs as they entered adulthood, but they began using again after divorce, loss of a loved one or job loss. Others in the generation never quit using drugs.
Today, baby boomers with weak educational backgrounds are having difficulty growing financially. Experts fear that generations of Americans may turn to alcohol and other drugs when faced with delayed retirement and a less affluent future than their parents had.
Older adults can’t consume alcohol and other drugs in the same quantity and at the same frequency as they did when they were younger. A person’s tolerance typically grows over time, but their metabolism slows. A person becomes more sensitive to the effects of alcohol and other drugs when they take longer to metabolize.
“[Being older] lowers their ability to tolerate alcohol and certain medications. It’s just that much more damaging because they’re frailer and more susceptible to harm.”
Other health conditions — such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or cognitive impairment — can amplify the negative effects of drug abuse. Additionally, medications for age-related health conditions interact with substances of abuse, which can lead to dangerous side effects.
Older adults may be tempted to self-medicate symptoms of depression, anxiety or stress, which become more common in old age. Alcohol and other drugs only temporarily mask symptoms, though. In the long run, substances of abuse make symptoms worse and can lead to more rapid cognitive decline.
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Treatment for substance use disorders is the same for young adults as it is for older adults. Research indicates that evidence-based treatment methods are equally effective for all adult age groups. However, the industry may not be able to meet the expected increase in demand for treatment.
Between 5.6 million and 8 million older adults suffer from a mental health or substance use disorder. The number of people older than 65 is expected to nearly double by 2030, increasing the impact that older adult health care will have on the U.S.
Factors specific to the baby boomer generation — such as longer histories of lifetime drug use and weak attitudes toward the dangers of drugs — could increase the impact of drug abuse on society.
“Those age 75 plus have strong moral views associated with addiction. This can be a barrier to getting help.”
It’s vital for policymakers and public health officials to focus on prevention and intervention methods for middle-aged and older adults. Primary care and geriatric physicians should screen older adults for alcohol or drug abuse and refer them to drug rehabilitation centers if necessary. Friends and family should intervene if they know a loved one is abusing drugs and stop the problem before it gets worse.