More Baby Boomers Seeking Treatment for Drug Addiction

Posted on June 18th, 2010

A new study sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows a dramatic increase in the number of older adults (age 50 and older) being treated for substance abuse. The study, called Changing Substance Abuse Patterns among Older Admissions: 1992 and 2008, tracked the proportion of admissions to substance abuse treatment facilities nationwide through the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS) and found that those involving older adults nearly doubled in the last sixteen years. As the Baby Boomer generation reaches old age, many are bringing with them complex addiction disorders. Surprisingly, many of the illicit substance abuse disorders among this age group were developed within the last five years.

In 1992, the number of older Americans admitted to treatment facilities was near 6.6% of all admissions nationwide; by 2008, the number of admissions from this age group reached 12.2%. Statistically, alcohol addiction has remained the primary substance abuse disorder for people age 50 and older, and this still holds true today. However, seniors are now abusing more illicit substances—such as cocaine, heroin, and marijuana—and legal prescription drugs than before.

In 1992, admissions for prescription drug abuse involving older adults were at 0.7%, yet this figure jumped to 3.5% by 2008. Marijuana abuse admissions rose from 0.6% in 1992 to 2.9% in 2008. Heroin abuse admissions more than doubled—from 7.2% of admissions in 1992 to 16.0% in 2008. Most significantly, cocaine abuse admissions almost quadrupled, from 2.9% in 1992 to 11.4% in 2008. While these substances of abuse increased among older adults, alcohol abuse saw a decline in admissions among this age group.

Older adult admissions involving alcohol as the primary substance of abuse were once 84.6% of admissions in 1992, but fell to 59.9% by 2008. This shift in primary substances of abuse has caused alarm among the health community, not only in regards to treatment for the current generation of older Americans, but also in terms of preparing for the onset of the aging Baby Boomers. Public health services such as addiction treatment centers will need to adjust their recovery services for seniors in order to meet the influx of older adults who will be entering their doors and the types of addictions they suffer from.

Additionally, the study showed a drastic increase in the number of older adults suffering from comorbid (or co-occurring) substance abuse disorders. In 1992, 13.7% of older adult admissions to treatment facilities were experiencing multiple substance abuse disorders. In 2008, this figure tripled to 39.7% of older adult admissions. Researchers state that this incline is mostly due to the rise of cocaine addiction among this age group. In 1992, the percentage of older American admissions involving cocaine as the primary substance of abuse in comorbid cases was at 5.3%, but by 2008 this more than tripled to 16.2%.

Cocaine abuse was also responsible for the rise in addictions that occurred within the last five years. About 26.2% of addictions started in the last five years among older adults involved cocaine as the primary substance of abuse, with prescription drug abuse following close behind at 25.8% of recent addictions. Even though almost 75% of older adults admissions still pertain to an addiction that began before the age of 25, addictions that were initiated within the last five years among this age group grew—most involved illicit substances. 

This growing proportion of substance abusers among older Americans will pose a challenge to community-led health services across the nation as they must now strategize on how to treat both the complex health disorders that seniors already face, and the multifaceted chronic disorders of substance abuse.

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