4 Million Adults Over Age 50 Smoke Marijuana and Abuse Prescription Drugs

Posted on January 13th, 2010
Posted in Abused Drugs

According to a new government study, more than 4 million adults over the age of 50 are smoking marijuana and abusing prescription drugs, and rates of abuse among the 50-plus age group almost doubled between 2002 and 2007. The report suggests that over the next two decades, the number of older adults using drugs will increase even further as the baby boomer generation ages—an increase that is expected to double the demand for treatment services by 2020.

Madeline Ellis of Health News writes that the report, based on data collected during 2006-2008 from almost 20,000 U.S. adults born between 1946 and 1964, found that marijuana use was more prevalent among those aged 50 to 59, while prescription drug abuse was more common in those 65 and older. More men than women (8.5 percent vs. 3.9 percent) aged 50 to 54 acknowledged using marijuana in the previous year. Less than 1 percent of older adults said they had used drugs other than marijuana or prescription medications, including 0.5 percent for cocaine, 0.1 percent for hallucinogens and 0.1 percent for heroin.

“This new data has profound implications for the health and well being of older adults who continue to abuse substances,” said Pamela Hyde, head of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the agency that conducted the study.

Peter Delany, director of the Office of Applied Studies at the SAMHSA, said the problem is that some baby boomers who picked up the drug habit when they were young never stopped as they matured into adulthood.

“This is becoming more and more apparent in practice,” said Dr. Ihsan M. Salloum, chief of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse: Treatment and Research at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. “You have both prescription drugs being used that people can become addicted to and also people who have had a pattern of use from before.”

“We need much better support services for the number of older adults who are going to have substance abuse problems,” said Dr. Gary Kennedy, director of Geriatric Psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center, adding that there’s a pattern of older adults transitioning from illicit drug use into prescription drug and alcohol abuse. “It could be an adult who used to smoke a joint every night before bed and now they take a sleeping pill,” he said, adding that alcohol is “still the king of abused substances.”

Delaney also said there are special concerns when treating older, generally frailer individuals. “This population tends to have other health problems, especially chronic health problems,” he explained. “And as we age, we don’t metabolize drugs the same way.”

Dr. David Schlager, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine and a psychiatrist with Lone Start Circle of Care, says mental health issues may also come into play as older people with substance-abuse diagnosis are much more at risk of suicide.

Experts agree that finding appropriate treatments for this group could be challenging, with the possibility that those with new addictions and those with long-term issues might need different treatments. “We don’t really have data and research for the most effective treatments for older individuals,” said Jeffrey Parsons, chair of psychology at Hunter College in New York City. “Are existing programs effective or do we need to start from scratch?”

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