People usually have a stereotype image of drug addicts as they can be spotted easily. We’ve all seen them. Teenage skateboarders behind the mini mart passing a joint around, they’re drug abusers. Addicts look like fans of dance music dipping into a bag of powder before the music starts, or more infamously, those strung-out, hollow-eyed denizens of weekly-rate motels with tattoos and meth sores. And there are the overachieving young professionals, who do not really fall under the typical stereotype of drug users.
The common threat here is drug abuse is for the young. It’s a young person’s game and a young person’s mistake, a folly of youth. However, these pre-conceived ideas are totally wrong.
Speaking to the American Osteopathic Association, psychiatrist Stephen Scheinthal, D.O., said, “Substance abuse knows no boundary of age. Whether you are 20 or 80 years old, you may see drinking or taking drugs – whether legal or illegal – as a way of coping with grief anxiety, depression or pain.”
Substances never stop being dangerous
While the numbers aren’t as startling as some drug abuse reports, there is definitely a presence of drug abuse among the elderly. A 2009 study published in the journal “Addiction” predicted there would be 5.7 million Americans over the age of 50 with substance abuse problems by 2020. The increase was said to be due to both the large size and “high substance abuse rate” of the baby-boom generation. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reported that among adults aged 60 to 64, the rate of current illicit drug use increased from 1.1 percent in 2003 and 2004 to 3.9 percent in 2013.
Also, it’s important to remember that a substance’s legality has nothing to do with its capability to be abused. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that between 20 and 30 percent of people aged 75 to 85 had experienced drinking problems.
Prescriptions play a role
Seniors are as susceptible to prescription painkiller abuse as anyone. “While the rate of seniors using illegal drugs, like marijuana, is low, older adults often take a higher number of medications to treat chronic illnesses. On average, seniors take four to nine pills per day between their prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications and abuse of these medications is not always easy to spot,” says Scheinthal.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 259 million prescriptions were filled in 2012, enough to give every American citizen a bottle of pills. People over the age of 65 only make up 13 percent of the total population of the U.S., but according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse they account for more than one third of total outpatient spending on prescriptions. Indeed, SAMHSA reports that almost 30 percent of patients aged between 57 and 85 used at least five prescriptions.
Overusing and/or combining painkillers with other substances is dangerous for everyone, but can be more dangerous in the elderly. Being under the influence of painkillers can affect balance, running a higher risk of falls. Depression is often a side effect – or a driver – of drug abuse as well. Finally, substance abuse brings with it medical complications and potentially harmful reactions with other medicines being taken by an elderly substance abuser.
Signs of drug abuse in seniors
Caregivers and family members should be aware of the following signs:
- Sleep pattern changes
- Increased stumbling and/or falling
- “Doctor shopping,” frequently changing physicians to get more prescription
- More numerous periods of confusion, or new changes in moods like irritability or agitation
Like any chronic disease, addiction does not discriminate on terms of class, race, gender or age. If you know someone who is struggling with substance abuse issues, the Rapid Detox Helpline is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We can provide more information on addiction and drug effects, and we can also refer you to a detoxification program suited for your particular needs. Please contact us either via an online chat or at 866-403-5591.