Baby Boomers Abusing Drugs at Higher Rate Than Teens

By Victoria Kim 03/18/15

People born between 1946 and 1964 are outpacing younger generations for drug abuse and addiction.

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A growing number of baby boomers, who as youths used drugs at the highest rates of any generation, are abusing drugs.

As the 76 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, have reached late middle age, the rate of illicit drug use in this age group has increased over the past decade, while the rate for teens has declined, according to the federal government’s annual survey on drug use. The same inverse pattern occurred for drug arrests between 1997 and 2012.

Older adults are being admitted to hospitals for drug-related health problems at a higher rate, as well. In 2012, people between ages 45 and 64 had the highest rate of inpatient hospital stays for opioid abuse. Twenty years ago, it was those between ages 25 and 44.

Inevitably, a higher rate of overdose deaths have accompanied this trend. Between 1990 and 2010, the rate of death by accidental drug overdose for people between ages 45 and 64 increased 11-fold, the Wall Street Journal reported.

According to the most recent 2013 mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more older adults died of accidental drug overdoses than from car accidents or influenza and pneumonia. This trend has pushed baby boomers’ accidental overdose rate higher than that of 25- to 44-year-olds for the first time.

“Generally, we thought of older individuals as not having a risk for drug abuse and addiction,” said Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director for the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). “As the baby boomers have aged and brought their habits with them into middle age, and now into older adult groups, we are seeing marked increases in overdose deaths.”

The Wall Street Journal interviewed dozens of older drug users and recovering addicts, and found that some had used drugs their entire lives and never slowed down, while others used drugs when they were younger then returned to them later in life after a divorce, death in the family, or job loss. Some were introduced to opioid painkillers, the second most popular way for aging boomers to get high after an injury.

According to government estimates, more than 5.7 million people over the age of 50 will need substance abuse treatment by 2020. Currently, some drug-treatment services are adjusting to their new clientele by incorporating therapy sessions designed for older adults, treating aches and pains that come with old age with acupuncture and non-addictive painkillers. And instead of using scare tactics, telling stories about how drug abuse ruins people’s lives, they focus on teaching boomers the science of addiction.

“For every story you’ve got, they’ve got 15 others about people who expanded their minds with drugs and then became successful CEOs,” said Dr. John Dyben, who heads the older adult programs at Hanley Center at Origins in West Palm Beach, Florida.

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