November 1st, 2010

Report shows that older adults are abusing drugs

Drug addiction is often thought to be the scourge of the young. A new report, however, shows that substance abuse is becoming a greater concern among Americans over 50 years old.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), approximately 118,495 emergency room visits in 2008 involved illicit drug use by older adults. Cocaine was the most common drug (63 percent), followed by heroin (26.5 percent), marijuana (18.5 percent), and stimulants (5.3 percent).

In a recent report, SAMSHA said that the number of admissions for substance abuse treatment in older Americans has more than doubled since the early 1990s. Comparing rates of admission between 1992 and 2008, the agency noted that the numbers rose from approximately 102,000 to more than 231,000.

None of this data should come as a surprise. In a report put out by the agency in 2001, researchers predicted that “the number of illicit drug users among older adults is likely to increase in the coming years due to the aging of the ‘baby boom’ generation.” This year, the agency reports that the need for substance abuse treatment will double by the year 2020. Treatment rates in 2002 were highest in the northern and northeastern states.

Observations have been raised that, as the Baby Boom generation ages, the recreational drug use that was common during their youth would have aged along with them.

However, the most recent study pointed out serious socio-demographic shifts in those being treated, a fact that points to other factors playing a role. Unemployment rose from one fifth of those being treated to nearly one third and wages being a principal source of income dropped from 32.3 percent to 24.4 percent. Homelessness increased from 15.9 percent in 1992 to 19.5 percent in 2008.

Marriage status may also play a role. Patients who were married decreased from 33.3 percent to 21.5 percent and those who had never been married increased from 13.2 to 30.3 percent.

Whatever the reasons for the problems, the resulting increase in need is of great concern, said SAMHSA representatives.

“What we have is a group of older people who have fewer resources socially, fewer fiscal resources, and less employability,” says Peter Delany, director of SAMHSA’s Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.

As predicted in the earlier study, more resources will be needed to help treat these patients. For many, being in a treatment facility with younger people does not work.

One woman who sought treatment for crack cocaine addiction in a New York program geared towards older adults, says, “I realized I wanted help. But I was older and I felt embarrassed to go into a program with young kids.”

The change in the overall economy may also play a part in the increase.

“This rise in substance abuse treatment among older adults and the changes in the socioeconomic situation of this treatment group reflect the changing landscape over the past 17 years and highlights the importance of providing additional specialized treatment services and social supports to address these needs,” says SAMHSA Administrator Pamela S. Hyde, J.D.

SAMHSA conducted the study as part of the agency’s strategic initiative on data, outcomes and quality – an effort to create integrated data systems that help inform policy makers and providers on behavioral health issues.

For the solo practitioner, the increase in older clients has not been that evident, said Wendy Quinn, Psy.D, LADC, a clinical psychologist in Portsmouth, N.H. Besides the aging of a generation that was more open to drug use in its youth, Quinn suggested that the larger numbers seen across the country could be related to the increase in Americans over age 50 in general as well as other factors.

“As a lone ranger, I haven’t really seen it,” she said. “But I would think that it might be from there being less of a stigma attached to seeking treatment or due to an increase in prescribed medications being used.”

The culture, as a whole, could be responsible, she added.

“I think as a culture, we are seeking more and more ways to fulfill the ‘American dream,’ the idea of the pursuit of happiness, to experience pleasure. It could be shopping, pornography, eating, substance abuse. It would be an interesting [phenomenon] to study – the pursuit of pleasure.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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