Addiction In Older Americans


As the baby boomer generation ages, they carry with them a more relaxed and tolerant view of drug abuse. And with 30% of Americans in this group, it’s a significant new development in the treatment scene. Those who are over 50 and abusing drugs have increased in number dramatically since 2002, according to the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Coupling the generational attitudes toward drug abuse with the normal stresses that come with age – health problems, loss of loved ones, retirement and money issues – is a recipe that might explain the doubling of those reporting substance abuse in this age group.

The problem is made even more serious when we add in the way illicit drug use can affect older people. Without the health status of the young, the deleterious effects can be magnified. Addiction takes a toll on anyone, but is even more risky for those with diminished physical resources. It is quite possible that sensitivity may also be altered in the aging brain – we simply don’t know.

On the plus side, those middle-aged and above respond just as well to treatment as younger people. What might be needed is a style of treatment that more closely matches the way this age group deals with the world. It may require a different approach and one with enough medical expertise to understand the other medications this population is usually on. Adjusting a dose to limit addiction potential may alter the effects of another medication that seems unrelated.

The NIDA recommends an existing assessment for primary care physicians, called the NIDA-MED toolkit. It is intended to measure risk and help physicians address the issues with their patients. Part of the process is recommending a treatment program if warranted.

One important feature is simply raising awareness about the possibility of substance abuse in a population that doesn’t fit the normal stereotype. We tend to make assumptions about what drug addiction “looks” like, and few think it looks like grandpa.


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