Research shows that 1 in 7 Americans will develop a substance use disorder at some point during their lives. Yet, older adults are often invisible in this equation. We rarely think of this population when discussing addiction and its ramifications.
However, emerging research shows that an increasing number of older adults are suffering from the grips of addiction. Furthermore, this group may be more susceptible to problematic substance use—and lack of available treatment—than any other population.
The Aging Population
It's no secret that we are living longer than ever before. In fact, a fifth of the United States' population is over age 60. And in 2018, for the very first time in history, people over age 65 outnumbered children under age the age of 5. Likewise, research predicts that the rates of people over age 80 will triple, increasing to 426 million by 2050.
While aging is a natural process that can be incredibly meaningful and fulfilling, this isn't always the case. Many people struggle with significant life transitions (retirement, death of loved ones, chronic illness) that can trigger emotional and physical health problems.
Aging and Substance Use
Generally, substance use (particularly with illicit substances) declines as the individual transitions from young adulthood into middle and late adulthood. However, older adults are more likely to have chronic health conditions and take prescription narcotics than any other population.
While prescription narcotics—including opioids and benzodiazepines—can be used appropriately to treat a variety of conditions, they can also be habit-forming. If combined with other substances, the mixture can be fatal.
Unfortunately, problems with substance use in older adults are often minimized. Sometimes, they are entirely undetected. Since older adults are more likely to live alone, it's easier to hide problematic habits. Likewise, healthcare professionals may not screen for problems—especially if the individual reports that everything is okay.
What The Research Shows
Since 1999, drug overdoses in adults between ages 55-64 have risen six-fold. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), this staggering increase is higher than the increase in any other age group.
In New York City, where overdose deaths related to heroin have decreased since 2015, data shows that more than a quarter of fatalities involved adults between ages 55-84. Additionally, in one Bronx hospital, over half of the 1,000 patients receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction are over 55. Moreover, one-third of all Medicare recipients filled an opioid prescription in 2016. 500,000 of these prescriptions were for high doses.
The research remains grim. Over 100 older adult patients wind up in the emergency room for opioid-related problems every single day. Unfortunately, the recovery rates for older adults are equally brief. Just 18 percent of treatment programs are designed for people over 65.
Older adults are more susceptible than ever to developing substance use disorders. If they struggle with co-occurring medical or mental health issues, the risk of developing addiction problems only increases. As we continue raising awareness about addiction, we must include this demographic in our discussions.