New Wrinkle in Older Faces

Street drugs, prescription drugs, alcohol…If I asked you to describe a substance abuser, what do you visualize? Do you see a wrinkled, elderly man, or a gray-haired grandmother? Usually not, but it is time to take a closer look at the changing patterns of substance abuse.

Today’s blog post is difficult for several reasons. It tackles a topic that is easier to ignore. It is not pretty or funny or encouraging. It contains  some statistical data that is not recreational reading.

The post is from guest blogger *Linda*  who came up with the idea of an article introducing the topic of substance abuse in aging populations. She did all the hard work, the research, and most of the writing.

There are over seventy million baby boomers, and many are taking substance abuse into their senior years. Dramatic lifestyle changes, along with growing health problems, have led many people 50+ to turn to alcohol, prescription painkillers, and even heroin and cocaine to medicate their physical and mental pain.  Older adults are now hospitalized as often for alcohol-related problems as they are for heart attacks!

Some startling statistics from The Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The numbers are surprising and challenge the picture of older adult substance abusers as 1960s hippies who can’t give up their pot. Among the findings:

  • An estimated 17 percent of people aged 60+ struggle with substance misuse and addiction.
  • Among treatment facilities that receive some public funding, the proportion of treatment admissions for people aged 50 and older nearly doubled between 1992 and 2008
  • The proportion of older adult admissions reporting heroin as the primary substance of abuse more than doubled, from 7.2% in 1992 to 16% in 2008, and the proportion reporting cocaine as the primary substance of abuse quadrupled from 2.8% to 11.4%.

These shifts in demographics should alert health-care professionals to ask tough questions during routine exams. Drug use affects physical and mental health, and impacts the already-strained healthcare, mental health, and social services systems. Among these effects are mood, memory, pain, and sleep disorders , as well as cardiovascular and respiratory problems.

As people age, they can become more invisible, and it may be more difficult to see evidence of substance abuse in older adults’ day-to-day functioning especially if they become less engaged in society.

Why? One reason may be cultural–boomers grew up in an era when drugs may have had a certain allure. Another reason is economic with heightened anxiety about job security and retirement savings. A third reason is emotional–aging boomers may turn to illicit drugs to cope with grief and loss issues such as the death of a spouse or the end of a career.

Vital information is needed to understand the dynamics of addiction in older adults. Whether in self-care or as a caregiver, it is essential to:

  • Clearly distinguish between the signs of aging and the signs of addiction (many of which overlap)
  • Identify the indications of drug misuse and its progression to addiction
  • Understand the unique treatment needs of older adults

Arndt, S., Clayton, R., & Schultz, S. K. (2011). Trends in substance abuse treatment 1998-2008: Increasing older adult first-time admissions for illicit drugs. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 19(8), 704-711

Blow, F. C., Oslin, D. W., & Barry, K. L. (2002). Use and abuse of alcohol, illicit drugs and psychoactive medication among older people. Generations, 25(1), 50-54.

Crome, I., Sidhu, H., & Crome, P. (2009). No longer only a young man’s disease: illicit drugs and older people. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, 13, 141-143.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2010). The TEDS report: changing substance abuse patterns among older admissions: 1992 and 2008. Retrieved from

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). The NSUDUH report: illicit drug use among older adults. Retrieved from




13 thoughts on “New Wrinkle in Older Faces

  1. Eye opening! I encounter the smell of alcohol during the day sometimes from some older people I wouldn’t expect. But this topic takes my by surprise.


  2. Interesting and thought provoking, Linda. Surprised? Yes! I keep hearing about the opioid usage these days. The drug use in the young is awful and rather scary, and to add the elderly or middle aged adult into this equation makes for a sad and enormous societal problem. Thank you for sharing this. Prayer is much needed and this will be lifted up by me from now!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Having worked on an ambulance, I know that the trip to Heroin often starts at the doctor’s office. You have a patient (any age, but yes, sometimes in the age group you mention here) that comes in from some kind of pain. They are prescribed a narcotic. It helps with the pain of course, but then the script runs out and the Dr. is not allowed to fill it again. By then the patient is hooked. They “oxy” group is very addictive and patients are unaware. Heroin is cheap and easy to get, so they turn to that and poof… They become addicted to that instead. Now, because of the rapidly rising epidemic everywhere, there is a growing awareness among medical professionals. In fact, my 89 year old mother just fell badly during an unconscious episode because of a heart attack. They wouldn’t even give her a narcotic! The pendulum has now swung the other way. Doctors watch carefully now their patient’s scripts…well, more so I hope. But the treatment for addicts in this country is still deplorable. I had someone in my very close family become an addict. We pretty much had to go it alone. I hope with more and more people, spanning every walk of life (not just what people think of as ‘scumbags’) there will be growing help, because we need it badly! Addiction is a disease of the brain, just like cardiovascular disease is a disease of the heart and vessels. Both can be managed with the right help!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it seems a crazy world. People suffering in pain can go untreated while others receive unsupervised prescriptions.

      So much to say–and many worthy topics-the conversation is great, and perhaps such awareness will lead to a balance of effective and compassionate treatment for pain and addictions.

      I usually see you on my other blog–golly thanks for stopping in!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent article. We’d like to think baby boomers are part of the health craze and will live healthy lives well into their 90s. I think money fears and loss of loved ones are major concerns of this age group that may drive then to take a drink or a toke or a pill.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are right–aging can be painful in many ways. I had to say goodbye to a dear friend yesterday, and there is a hole in my heart. Physical pain and disease are factors too. Thanks for stopping by!


    1. I was surprised as well. I expected something more in the lines of medical marijuana, juggling multiple meds, or addiction to pain pills. Glad Linda brought this to our attention. Cocaine and Heroin? Who woulda thunk it?


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