A Rising Tide of Substance Abuse
By Richard A. Friedman, M.D.
April 29, 2013 2:31 pm April 29, 2013 2:31 pm 61 Comments
America’s 78 million aging baby boomers are heading into retirement with more than their considerable wealth, health and education. They are also bringing into their golden years an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse and mental illness that has yet to be recognized, according to a recent Institute of Medicine report.
The notion that the elderly might be abusing or addicted to alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription medications may strike some as improbable. After all, the common notion is that alcohol and substance abuse are for young people.
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Dead wrong. Baby boomers, who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s when experimenting with drugs was pervasive, are far more likely to use illicit drugs than previous generations. For example, a 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that among adults aged 50 to 59, the rate of current illicit drug use increased to 6.3 percent in 2011 from 2.7 percent in 2002. Aside from alcohol, the most commonly abused drugs were opiates, cocaine and marijuana.
To get a sense of the magnitude of this looming mental health crisis, consider that in 2010 the best estimates are that six to eight million older Americans — about 14 percent to 20 percent of the overall elderly population — had one or more substance abuse or mental disorders. The number of adults aged 65 and older is projected to increase to 73 million from 40 million between 2010 and 2030, and the numbers of those needing treatment stands to overwhelm the country’s mental health care system.
Detecting drug or alcohol problems in the elderly is difficult in part because family members and clinicians alike are reluctant to ask about it. Perhaps it’s just a form of ageism, but drug abuse is not the first thing that pops into the mind of physicians when they encounter...