More Older Americans Using Drugs Illicitly
Report says marijuana is used by nearly half of older drug users
An estimated 4.3 million Americans age 50 and older‹roughly one out of every 20 in that age group‹have used at least one drug illicitly within the past year, according to a government report released today that offers an intriguing snapshot of aging Americans and drugs.
Those who admitted to illicit drug use included nearly one in 10 boomers between ages 50 and 54, and one in 14 of those between 55 and 59, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which included a sample of nearly 20,000 older Americans.
Of the group that said they used drugs, marijuana was the drug of choice for nearly half of those 50 and older (44.9 percent). One-third (33.4 percent) admitted to taking prescription drugs for purposes other than their intended use. The survey was sponsored by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).
The findings follow previous research from the agency, released last summer, noting that marijuana use among those in their 50s increased by 84 percent since 2002. ³For the most part, this is a group of people that, as they age, never gave it up,² Peter Delany, who directs the agency¹s research, tells Bulletin Today.
Marijuana use was more prevalent among those in their 50s than in other age groups, the new report finds, while nonmedical use of prescription drugs was more common in men and women 65 and older. ³We can¹t explain why more older adults are misusing prescription drugs,² Delany says, ³but we can say that those medications are more available than they used to be.² It may be, he says, that people with valid prescriptions are disposing of their medication improperly, or that some are sharing their medication with others.
The survey did not track the reasons for taking the drugs‹whether they were for pain or for pleasure. But, Delany adds, ³If this trend continues‹and we expect it will‹the number of those in this age group who need treatment may double this decade.²
He sees the findings as a wake-up call for health professionals to do a better job of screening older patients for signs of drug abuse or misuse. ³When I go to my physician,² Delany says, ³I¹m asked about my tobacco and alcohol use, but I¹m not asked if I¹m using drugs. Also, I¹m not asked if I¹m feeling sad or want to hurt myself.²
Looking at all age groups, researchers find that men have higher rates of all types of illicit drug use, with one exception: women between ages 60 and 64. They are nearly twice as likely as men in their age group to take prescription drugs for nonprescription purposes.
The potential for prescription misuse‹and abuse‹in older Americans is nothing new. In a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Geriatric Pharmacotherapy, researchers from the University of Maryland¹s School of Pharmacy in Baltimore found that one in four older adults had exposure to prescription medications with ³abuse potential.²
³Most are painkillers,² says Linda Simoni-Wastila, a professor and lead author of that research. ³And a lot of it starts out as appropriate. Older folks don¹t usually run out and say, ŒI¹m going to be a recreational user.¹ But they have lower back pain, they can¹t sleep, so their doctor continues to prescribe the drugs‹and they get hooked.²
She adds that she¹s not surprised by the new SAMHSA research. She theorizes that in addition to old habits‹the Woodstock generation holding on to its pot-smoking habit of yesteryear‹there is also new, growing acceptance and use of medical marijuana.
Although alcohol use was not included in the national survey, Simoni-Wastila says it should be. ³When psychoactive drugs are [used or] abused in combination with alcohol, it can cause a lot of problems. These drugs should not be used in combination with each other‹or with alcohol.²
Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.