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.”
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.”