Baby Boomers and Drug Abuse
Despite the perception that illicit drug use is a behavioral health issue only for adolescents and young adults, it is also a serious and growing health concern for older adults. Research shows that illicit drug use is more common among the baby-boom generation than previous cohorts, leading researchers to estimate that the number of older adults with a substance use disorder will double by 2020. This report shows that nearly 4.8 million adults aged 50 or older used an illicit drug in the past year and that patterns of use vary by gender and age group. Together, these data highlight the importance of prevention and treatment efforts targeting older adults. Like younger age groups, effective treatment for older adults begins with accurate screening, assessment, and diagnosis. However, addressing the needs of older adults presents different challenges than younger age groups and requires different strategies.
For example, screening and assessment tools designed for younger adults may use criteria not relevant to older adults (e.g., the negative impact of substance use on work or school), which calls for the development and use of age-specific tools to properly recognize and diagnose substance abuse problems among older adults. Importantly, age-appropriate screening can help clinicians intervene early and may improve medical care because many health conditions are associated with illicit drug use. In addition, while conducting screenings, clinicians should ask older adults about the specific types of drugs used and the duration of use because these factors tend to affect decisions about appropriate treatment. For example, use of marijuana may be a decades-long experience for some older adults, indicating a different intervention than one that is appropriate for those with an abuse history of a few years. Finally, treatment of older adults must be adjusted to account for the life stage of the
individual and the aging process and should be expanded to settings that are convenient and comfortable, such as retirement communities and senior centers. Also, treatment planning and approaches that include adult children and friends of substance-abusing older adults may be critical to treatment initiation, engagement, and recovery.