Call him Albert. As a teenager he was drunk a lot. During military service he was doing hard drugs. And by middle age he’d wake up every morning and “use whatever I could get my hands on.” In the process, he lost his construction business and his marriage barely survived.
“The more money I made, the more I used,” he recalls.
Albert, a 66-year-old Fort Lauderdale man, who asked that his real name not be used, is the new face of addiction: a baby boomer long past the typical youthful phase of experimentation. He’s clean now, but as a member of Narcotics Anonymous, he says he meets plenty of older recovering addicts just like him.
Local and national figures show that more people in their 50s and 60s are abusing illegal and prescription drugs. While the use of illicit drugs remains relatively uncommon among people 65 and older, the number of illicit drug users 50 to 59 years old tripled between 2002 and 2011, from 900,000 to 2.7 million, according to the National Institutes of Health. The increase even prompted the NIH to post its first consumer alert on its website, NIHSeniorHealth.
More older adults are also seeking treatment for substance abuse. Drug-related hospitalizations and visits to emergency rooms were up 116 percent in the 55-to-64 age group from 2004 to 2010.
When asked if they had used an illicit drug in the past 30 days, boomers from 55 to 59 years old also posted the single largest increase of any age group in a single year. In 2010, 4.1 percent admitted to usage. By 2011, 6 percent did.
“That’s largely due to marijuana,” says Jim Hall, an epidemiologist for the Center on Applied Research on Substance Use and Health Disparities at Nova Southeastern University. “These are people who began using it in the 1960s, when the use of marijuana escalated dramatically from 1966 to 1973, and they may never have quit.”
Though the actual number of midlife drug users is significantly lower in comparison to teenagers and twentysomethings, the alarming spike moved the NIH to urge physicians and family members to be alert for warning signs of drug abuse in older people.
“We don’t think of older adults as having a substance abuse problem,” says Dr. Gaya Dowling, chief of the science policy branch at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “We think of it as a young person’s problem.”
Statistics from Florida underscore the worrisome national trend of drug abuse among older adults. The percent of admissions to publicly funded treatment programs for patients 51 to 60 years old shot up 67 percent in the 10 years ending in 2011, according to data from the Florida Department of Children and Families.
Today’s fiftysomething Floridians are also more likely than other generations to be addicted to both alcohol and illicit drugs. In 2001, 3.6 percent of those entering treatments for dual addictions were 51 to 60 years old. By 2011, that had shot up to 14 percent.
Dr. John Eustace, medical director of the South Miami Hospital Addiction Treatment Center, has noticed the increase in both his in-patient and out-patient groups. Patients 55 and older make up half of those admitted to the hospital’s 11-bed addiction unit and one-third of those receiving outpatient care.
“We see a lot of legal drugs being used in maladaptive ways,” Eustace says. “There’s a social underground of trafficking that you can’t begin to imagine.”