In national data, alcohol remained the most cited reason for admission, followed by alcohol with a secondary drug. Prescription opioids ranked third.
Miami psychiatrist Eugenio Rothe says he’s noticed an increase in older women who were prescribed a tranquilizer after a traumatic event — the death of a spouse, for instance, or a job loss — and then never got off the powerful medication. “They find someone who will keep giving it to them or they trade among their friends,” he says. “And these are women who probably never touched drugs when they were young.”
Rothe, a professor at the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at FIU, adds that many wouldn’t even consider themselves to be addicted. “There’s a lot of self-medication going on.”
Hall, of Nova Southeastern, has also noticed one other way that boomers differ from other age groups: When it comes to emergency room visits involving drugs, cocaine was the driving force in South Florida. In 2004, 395 ER patients aged 55 to 64 either self-reported or tested for cocaine use. By 2010 that had jumped to 682. In Broward and Palm Beach counties there were a combined 212 cocaine ER department reports in 2007. In 2010, that had gone up to 324. By contrast, there was a significant decline of ER reports of that drug among all age groups.
“These were likely baby boomers who started on marijuana in the late ‘60s and progressed to cocaine in the late ‘70s and ‘80s,” Hall says. “They’re most likely not to be heavy users but have a health condition that can be affected by use of the drug,” sending them to the emergency room.
Experts offer several explanations for the upswing in substance abuse among older adults. The boomer generation — born between 1946 and 1964 and 79 million strong — is so large that its sheer numbers skew any statistic when compared to past generations at that age. But boomers were also the first generation to experiment with drugs in their youth, and studies show early use is a risk factor for later addiction.
What’s more, “boomers grew up in a culture that you pop a pill and cure practically anything away,” Dowling says.
But what may have been initially a quick-fix way to help someone fall asleep or calm down can be far from a cure. In older people, drugs remain in the body longer and even a small amount can have a strong effect. Older people also tend to be on more medications and the interaction with these prescribed drugs can be dangerous.
“The same dose of, say, alcohol, that somebody could take as a young person in an older person can be devastating,” Eustace says. “A 65-year-old isn’t going to metabolize four ounces of something in the same way as a person in his 20s does.”
The good news is that older adults respond as well as younger ones to therapy. But experts say physicians and family members must be aware of the possibility of drug abuse and not dismiss certain symptoms — falls and other accidents, for instance — as signs of aging.
“We have to get the message out to the family to be alert to changes in behavior,” Eustace adds. “By the time they’re using, the drug takes over and their judgment is impaired.”