For much of the generation born between 1946 and 1964, commonly known as baby boomers, the 1960s and 1970s were a time of drug experimentation.
As it turns out, those who grew up in an era when drugs like marijuana, acid, and cocaine boomed in popularity didn’t completely abandon some of their youthful proclivities after growing up.
In 2010, nearly 2.4 million people in their 50s said that they had abused prescription or illegal drugs within the previous month — a rate more than double that of 2002.
While the use of alcohol and marijuana as drugs of choice hasn’t gone away after all these years, there is one type of drug that has become a much more common source of addiction than when these baby boomers were coming of age: opioids.
Baby Boomers’ Use of Opioids Rises Considerably
We’ve all heard about the opioid epidemic that has been sweeping our nation for the past few decades, but the narrative surrounding this devastating crisis is often focused largely on geography — namely, that the most significant opioid abuse occurs in rural and poor areas.
That’s true to an extent, but as of March 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that drug overdose death rates continue to rise in urban areas as well.
From an age standpoint, most studies focus on young adults and those considered to be middle-aged. In 2019, for instance, more than half of those who died from an opioid overdose in the United States were between 25 and 44.
Though it can’t match the raw numbers of younger demographics, the rate at which older adults are fatally overdosing is on the rise. According to a study from Northwestern Medicine, between 1999 and 2019, opioid-related overdose deaths among U.S. adults age 55 and older went from a raw total of 518 to 10,292 — a 1,886% increase.
“Many are baby boomers who, in their youth, were using recreational drugs and, unlike in previous generations, they’ve continued using into their older age,” said senior author Lori Post, Buehler Professor of Geriatric Medicine and professor of emergency medicine and medical social sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “That sort of flies in the face of our stereotypes of the ‘older adult.’ We don’t think of them as recreational drug users, but it’s a growing problem.”
Of the nearly 80,000 adults age 55 and older who died from opioid overdoses in those two decades, nearly half were ages 55-64.
Contributing Factors for This Overdose Increase
One of the biggest reasons for the rise in fatal overdoses among older adults, Post says, is simple ageism. Many doctors don’t screen for drug misuse with their older patients because that doesn’t fit the stereotype of what it means to be “old.”
“They’re invisible,” Post said. “We’re talking grandmas and grandpas doing drugs, and to the point of overdosing. We don’t think of them seriously. Not as potential victims of domestic abuse, physical or sexual assault, or drug addiction. That needs to change.”
Other factors of the exponential increase include:
- Social isolation
- Exposure to prescribed opioids for conditions such as arthritis and cancer
- Declining cognitive function, which can interfere with taking opioids as prescribed
The body’s ability to metabolize opioids also decreases with age, making people more vulnerable to overdose.
Ways to Address This Growing Crisis
One particularly interesting finding from the study was the extraordinarily large increase in fatal overdoses among older Black men.
By 2019, there was a fatality rate of 40.03 per 100,000 non-Hispanic Black or African American men age 55 and older from opioid overdose — four times greater than the rate of others of the same age.
Black men are more likely to have experienced trauma and a lack of access to insurance or healthcare compared with other subpopulations of older adults.
All these findings mean that there is quite a bit of work to do to stop this spike from continuing in the decades to come. To help racial minorities, that can start with addressing the social determinants of health that drive drug abuse in the first place.
As we zoom out and look at all older adults, taking steps to inform in accessible arenas is a great place to start. At the healthcare level, it’s vital that routine screenings take place whether a patient is prescribed a potentially abusive drug or not.
Workers in all facets that cater to seniors need to be equipped to recognize signs of abuse. Things like unnecessary falls, heightened confusion, and asking for medication they don’t need can be major indicators that an older adult has a potential problem.
Once more of these systems are in place, we can help stop more unnecessary overdoses before it’s too late.
About Starlite Recovery Center
Located in Center Point, Texas, an hour northwest of San Antonio, Starlite Recovery Center is a premier residential treatment center for adults who are struggling with addiction and co-occurring mental health concerns. Our campus is situated on 55 acres of beautiful Texas hill country, offering clients the ideal place to get away from life’s daily stressors and truly focus on their recovery. Other levels of care include detoxification and an intensive outpatient program (IOP). We also provide care for diverse populations, with specialty tracks for the LGBTQ+ community, Christians, and military veterans and first responders. For more information, please visit www.starliterecovery.com.