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