6 Substances Commonly Misused By Older Adults in America

Adults aged 50 and older are among the more than 3 million people in the United States who have opioid or opiate addictions. Overuse or misuse of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone is so widespread that President Trump has declared the opioid epidemic a public “health emergency.” But opioids aren’t the only substances older adults are abusing. In fact, according to a National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) report on drug use among older adults, an estimated 4.8 million adults aged 50 or older had used an illicit drug in the past year. Here is a closer look at the six substances — illicit or otherwise — most commonly abused by seniors in America.

#1 Alcohol

Although opioid misuse has been grabbing headlines for the last few years, alcohol is actually a more commonly abused substance in the United States, and particularly among seniors. In general, Americans over 60 are drinking more than they were 20 years ago. Drinking rates among older women in particular are on the rise. According to 2013 data gathered from 80,000 U.S. adults regarding their alcohol consumption over a 12-month period, alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence among senior citizens has increased by an astounding 105% since 2002. Seniors also are participating in high-risk drinking patterns at increasing rates, consuming greater volumes of alcohol each week. Binge drinking — consuming five or more drinks in a single day of the week, often in a span of two hours or less — is a drinking pattern usually associated with college students. However, a study from the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that binge-drinking patterns increased among U.S. adults over age 60 from 1997 to 2014. While the reasons for increased drinking rates among older adults are unclear, the negative impact is more certain — aging bodies are less efficient at metabolizing alcohol, which can lead to more health problems.

#2 Marijuana

According to the most recent NSDUH report (2011), nearly 5 million older adults use illicit drugs, and roughly 3 million of those commonly use marijuana — some illegally or non-medically. In fact, marijuana use among adults aged 50 to 59 was more common than non-medical prescription drug use in this age group, particularly among men. Among adults aged 60 and older, marijuana use was about equal to non-medical prescription drug use.

#3 Cocaine and other stimulants

The Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), a public health surveillance system that monitored drug-related hospital emergency department visits related to drug use and misuse among older adults until 2011, reported that 63% of the more than 100,000 drug-related ER visits made by adults aged 50 and older that year were due to cocaine use. More than 550,000 adults in this age group reported using cocaine, according to DAWN (later NSDUH). Other stimulants misused by older adults include prescription medications used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and narcolepsy, such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) and amphetamine (Adderall). These prescription stimulants are said to produce effects similar to cocaine at increased doses and are, therefore, highly addictive.

#4 Opioids and opiates

While alcohol, marijuana and cocaine seem to be the most commonly abused substances among senior citizens, prescription drugs follow closely behind. Prescription painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and other opioids or opiates were the category of medication most often involved in emergency room visits among adults aged 50 and older, representing roughly 35% of ER visits in this age group.

#5 Sedatives, depressants and tranquilizers

Representing roughly 32% of ER visits involving adults aged 50 and older were problems stemming from prescription sedatives or depressants such as diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax) and lorazepam (Ativan). Often used to treat anxiety, panic disorders or sleeplessness, these medications are in a drug class called benzodiazepines, or benzos. These drugs are intended to be taken in fairly low doses as a “minor tranquilizer,” but people can become psychologically and physically dependent on them, leading them to increase their dosage. Higher doses can lead to addiction, terrible withdrawal symptoms and a host of other negative side effects.

#6 Antidepressants

Older adults with depression or other mood disorders may be prescribed antidepressants such as escitalopram (Lexapro, Cipralex), sertraline (Zoloft, Lustral), fluoxetine (Prozac), and paroxetine (Paxil, Seroxat) among others. The rates of misuse for these prescription medications are somewhat lower than misuse rates for the other substances among seniors. Problems related to antidepressants represented roughly 9% of ER visits among adults aged 50 and older in 2010, according to the most recent numbers gathered by DAWN for this age group. Sources The NSDUH Report, National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). SAMHSA, September 2011. The Use of the Minor Tranquilizers: Xanax, Ativan, Klonopin, and Valium. Fredric Neuman M.D. Psychology Today, June 2012. A Day in the Life of Older Adults: Substance Use Facts, May 2017. Emergency Department Visits Involving Illicit Drug Use by Older Adults. The DAWN Report, Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN), September 2010. Adderall (amphetamine). Kathleen Smith, LPC, PhD. Psycom, July 2017. Ritalin. What is Ritalin?, September 2017.

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