Substance Abuse on the Rise with Baby Boomers

photo of a group of baby boomers sitting together at an outdoor party drinking alcohol

Substance Abuse on the Rise with Baby Boomers

Overlooking a Growing Dilemma

Substance abuse, particularly of alcohol and prescription drugs, among baby boomers is one of the fastest growing health issues facing our country. Yet, even as the number of older adults suffering from these disorders increases, the situation remains relatively hidden from the public’s eye. While substance abuse among the young is surveyed, categorized and analyzed, addiction problems of the parents and grandparents of these youths are virtually ignored.

Addiction problems of the parents and grandparents of these youths are virtually ignored.

The reasons for this oversight can be due to a lack of knowledge, limited available research statistics or even hurried doctor visits that overlook symptoms or attribute them to other health issues. As people age, medical issues, such as high-blood pressure, diabetes, dementia and others, can present symptoms that mirror the ones associated with addiction.  However, a better assessment of the problems associated with substance abuse among baby boomers is needed.

The Numbers are Rising

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), alcohol use among individuals aged 50+ is sustainably higher than illicit drug use. [1] The 2014 and 2015 SAMHSA’s Behavioral Health Barometer, which provides overviews of behavioral health in the United States, reported the following information on baby boomers: [2]

The use of illegal substances by older adults is on the rise. The generation who grew up in the “Age of Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll” often see drugs as a way to combat loneliness and depression. Long-term recreational drug users, such as marijuana smokers, may now be facing increasing physiological problems associated with aging and drug use. Extended periods of isolation from retirement, “empty nest” or reduced interpersonal interactions tend to escalate substance use. Individuals who are hard-core drug users are at an even higher risks of serious physical decline, possibly leading to an early death. In 2013, more than 12,000 boomers died from accidental drug overdose. [3]Elements that contribute to higher alcohol use among older adults include significant changes in life, such as retirement, loss of family and friends and a decline in mental or physical health. Additional factors that make older individuals more vulnerable to inappropriate alcohol use include insomnia, family history of substance abuse, and having a psychiatric illness, such as depression or anxiety.

Misperceptions and Addiction

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM), addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. It is characterized by biological, psychological, social and spiritual symptoms. [4] Addiction, like Alzheimer’s disease, is a disorder of the brain that can affect both young and old. The lack of attention to this problem in older individuals may stem from the false beliefs that addiction results from a lack of willpower. So, this could result in a “shame” associated with substance abuse, which then leads to a reluctance to seek professional help and attempting to handle the issue privately and discretely. Their relatives, especially adult children, are often embarrassed by the problem and purposely choose to ignore it.

Ageism can also contribute to the silence associated with substance abuse in baby boomers. Young people often assign a different set of standards to older individuals. However, it is the belief that substance abuse can be overlooked in older individuals because of far-fetched reasons, such as: “It doesn”t make a difference since they are near the end of their lives anyway,” or “Grandma needs her ‘Happy Juice’ because she is so much easier to manage after she has it.” These attitudes are not only callous, they rely on false perceptions. Somehow, it becomes acceptable to ignore addiction problems with baby boomers. The same disorder that would have a family rallying around and staging an intervention for a teenager does not illicit the same sense of urgency for a grandparent.

Small Amounts, Big Effects

The reality is that the misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs takes a greater toll on baby boomers than younger individuals. As people age, the way that their bodies metabolize alcohol and other substances slows. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as the body goes through aging changes, alcohol and drugs cannot be broken down and eliminated from the body as easily.  Thus, they remain in the body longer and even a small amount can have a strong effect. [5] Some of the risks include increased number of falls, greater levels of confusion and higher potential to interactions with other medications.

Telling Mom and Dad That They Need Help

It is a difficult situation when a child has to tell Mom or Dad that they need help for a substance problem.

Increased mood swings, difficulties making decisions, disorientation and just not seeming like themselves can be symptoms of a substance abuse problem and not just general characteristics of the aging process. However, it is a difficult situation when a child who has always relied on his or her parents to make wise choices, now has to tell Mom or Dad that they need help for a substance problem.

Unfortunately, our society does not fully recognize the seriousness and extent of substance misuse in older adults. As the number of older individuals with addiction problems grows, better methods for early identification of the signs are needed. In an article in Today’s Geriatric Medicine, some of the steps are:

  • Improving quality of care, including training and broadening dissemination of effective practices;
  • Integrating substance abuse, health, mental health and aging services to provide comprehensive care tailored to the needs of the individual consumer who presents with co-occurring, multiple needs;
  • Building a clinically and culturally competent workforce through education and training of providers, increasing the supply of competent providers, especially those who are bilingual and culturally competent and using older adults in peer-to-peer service roles more extensively;
  • Increasing support for family caregivers, including education about medication management and signs of alcohol and drug abuse;
  • Providing public education to address ageism, stigma, ignorance and fears about treatment and its effectiveness;
  • Improving research on effective prevention, intervention and recovery support strategies
  • Developing governmental and private sector readiness including leadership, planning and program development. [6]

Too Much Time On Your Hands

The generation that grew up in an era that romanticized drug use and rebellion is now preparing to retire. Uninhibited by work responsibilities and parental duties, many of the baby boomers are using the extra time to relive their youth and return to a favorite pastime. If you are concerned about an older friend or family member, Behavioral Health of the Palm Beaches is ready to help. With nearly 20 years of experience, our doctors and other medical professionals can develop a addiction treatment program in South Florida that encompasses baby boomers’ needs. When you are ready to get back those good feelings without misusing alcohol and drugs, call us at (888) 432-2467.

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