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Baby Boomers and Substance Abuse

When people think of drug abuse, they usually picture thrill-seeking young adults and teens. They certainly don’t picture grandparents. But as the baby boomers age, rates of substance abuse in the elderly are increasing at a frightening rate.

Substance Abuse, Mental Illness, and an Aging PopulationAccording to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), the rate of drug abuse among adults aged 50 to 59 rose from 2.7 percent in 2002 to 6.3 percent in 2011. It’s estimated six to eight million elderly Americans suffer from at least one mental illness or substance abuse disorder.Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, and opiates are most commonly abused, but misuse of prescription medication is rising rapidly among aging baby boomers. Anti-anxiety medication, sleeping pills, and prescription painkillers are all easy to obtain and capable of causing addiction.

Causes and Consequences of Elderly Substance AbuseIt’s been suggested baby boomers are open to the idea of substance abuse, growing up as they did in the 1960s and 1970s, when counterculture groups actively advocated drug experimentation. There may be some truth to this claim, but generally speaking, older individuals aren’t turning to substance abuse for the thrill. Instead, elderly substance abuse is often an attempt to self-medicate the consequences of aging, including physical pain, depression, grief at the loss of spouses, and social isolation. Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance among senior Americans. According to the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 8.3 percent of people over the age of 65 reported binge drinking, while 2 percent reported heavy drinking.The consequences of alcohol or drug abuse can be severe among older Americans. As we age, our ability to metabolize alcohol and other drugs diminishes, while our brains’ sensitivity to substances increases. The substance builds up in our system faster and remains there longer. Additionally, many elderly are already taking medication for health conditions. This medication may interact badly with the abused substance.

Identifying Substance Abuse in Elderly Loved OnesThe effects of substance abuse on seniors are similar to those seen in younger people. Your loved one may become socially isolated, neglect his physical appearance, lose interest in activities he enjoys, or seem confused. Unfortunately, these symptoms can easily be mistaken for dementia, and substance abuse is often overlooked.Be aware changes in health, spousal death, and the loss of old friends can all trigger substance abuse, depression, or both in your loved one. Keep an eye on older relatives during difficult times and don’t dismiss signs of substance abuse as aging or dementia. Drug treatment programs provide relief to people of all ages. Your loved one doesn’t need to spend his or her senior years in the grip of addiction. 

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