Sustained Outrage

Drug abuse and older Americans

The pattern of drug abuse by older Americans may be changing, trending towards hard drugs. According to this study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the proportion of older Americans — defined as people 50 and older — admitted to treatment programs almost doubled (from 6.6 percent to 12.2 percent) between 1992 and 2008.

And the reasons older American are seeking treatment in the first place are changing, too. Look at the changes in the primary substance abuse listed as the reason treatment is needed. Alcohol is down, from 84.6 percent (1992) to 59.9 percent (2008), but drugs have soared across the board:

— heroin has more than doubled, from 7.2 percent to 16 percent;

— cocaine has increased from 2.8 percent to 11.4 percent;

— pescription pain relievers jumped from 0.7 percent to 3.5 percent;

— marijuana shot up from 0.6 percent to 2.9 percent;

— and amphetamines skyrocketed from 0.2 percent to 2.5 percent.

The percentage of older people who reported multiple substances as the reason for their treatment also saw a huge increase, from 13.7 percent in 1992 to 39.7 percent in 2008.

Also, the proportion of older Americans who began using within the last five years went down for alcohol (from 42.9 percent to 9.9 percent) and cocaine (29.5 percent to 26.2 percent) but jumped for heroin (11.4 percent to 16.8 percent), pain medication (5.4 percent to 25.8 percent), and amphetamines (1.3 percent to 8.6 percent).

The study concluded:

Policymakers also need to be aware that older adults are a growing proportion of substance abusers and are increasingly abusing substances other than alcohol. In addition, physicians should learn to recognize the signs of substance abuse in their older patients and should be prepared to refer them to treatment when necessary.

When coupled with the fact that deaths from drug overdoses have quintupled over roughly the same period, and that rural drug use is deadlier than urban drug use, and that West Virginia’s population is generally older than in other states, these numbers should be a call to action for those who treat and protect the Mountain State’s older citizens.