The Upcoming Epidemic of Substance Abuse in the Elderly

Everyone knows that baby boomers are all headed toward their golden years, and they’re taking all their education, wealth and health with them.   However, what people don’t seem to realize is that they are also taking an epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse with them into retirement.

This likely comes as quite a surprise to many people because they believe that drug and alcohol problems are just for the young.  However, it makes more sense if you remember that baby boomers grew up in the 60’s and 70’s.   That was a time when experimenting with drugs was relatively widespread when compared to earlier generations.

The number of adults between the ages of 50 – 59 who used illicit drugs in 2002 was just 2.7%.  However, when the baby boomers began to enter that age group, the percentage rose to 6.3% by 2011.

Another recent study determined that 8.3% of people older than 65 took part in binge drinking activities.

There are currently more than 40 million people aged 65 and older and that number is expected to increase to more than 73 million by 2013.

That means the number of elderly people who need assistance with substance abuse problems will grow quite dramatically.  This group of people on their own could overwhelm the mental health care system.

The problem is that as you age, your body’s ability to metabolize these substances is reduced.  That combined with the natural cognitive impairments means that self-reporting and monitoring doesn’t happen until it becomes a very serious problem.

It is interesting to note that the reasons for this type of drug abuse changed for these people over the years.  People who begin using drugs in their teens or 20’s are typically thrill-seekers or those with psychiatric disorders and antisocial traits.

However, when people use drugs in their later years, it is typically due to wanting to manage the physical and psychological pain from illness, social isolation or the loss of loved ones.

In addition to the inherent dangers of this type of drug abuse in this population, it also makes it much more difficult to diagnose other problems with their health.

There is no question that these aging baby boomers will place a significant burden on our mental health centers over the next few decades.  One can only hope that we are prepared for it so that these people, as well as others who will still need help, can get the proper treatment they deserve.

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